Category Archives: Little Dog Lost

Keeping a Long Career Alive

Little Dog, LostThe first time I did it, it was a challenge. I’d never thought of doing it before. In fact, when my MFA students at Vermont College of Fine Arts wanted to do it, I confess that I discouraged them.

I’m talking about novels in verse, often called poetry novels. Poetry novels, I used to tell my students, are usually neither. They aren’t poetry and they don’t work as novels.

But then I did it. I wrote one. And I had to eat all my old reservations. My verse novel was called Little Dog, Lost.

I wrote Little Dog, Lost in verse—I eschew the word poetry, because what I was doing was certainly not that—for a very special reason. I wanted to write a story that would be accessible to developing readers, and I didn’t want to work in the short sentences usually required. I had written in those short sentences many times with a series of books for Random House Stepping Stones: The Blue Ghost; The Red Ghost; The Green Ghost; The Golden Ghost; The Secret of the Painted House; The Very Little Princess and its prequel, The Very Little Princess, Rose’s Story.

Marion Dane Bauer books It is entirely possible to write in short, accessible sentences and still to maintain rhythm and flow. I did it in those Stepping Stones books. But after a while, I itched to write with my own more natural flow. And the best way I could think of to do that and still give young readers bite-sized pieces was to write in verse. The white space on the page would make every line feel more accessible, no matter the length of the sentence it was part of.

So I tried it.

And surprised myself. I started out tentatively, uncertainly—was I truly writing verse or was I just breaking my prose into ragged lines?—but I soon fell in love with this new way of bringing a story to the page. Writing in verse naturally condensed my language, made it tighter and more powerful, too. And the lines looked so pretty on the page. I discovered that I liked white space, too.

I also found it more difficult to pull in backstory, so my story became more about the present moment. Which changed its nature. (This lack of comprehensive back story used to be one of my objections to verse novels.) But I began to see the change as good. Different from, rather than worse than.

I loved writing Little Dog, Lost. So much so, that I decided to do it again. Not a sequel with the same characters but another animal book in the same style. And Little Cat’s Luck was born.

Little Cat's LuckThis time I fell into the verse the way I had once fallen into prose writing, as the most natural way in the world to write. It felt like the way my story needed to find its way to the page. Rather quickly, though, I found myself wanting not only to do what I had done before, to write a story in verse, but to play with that verse. To see what else the form could accomplish. And so I played until I stumbled into concrete poetry.

When a golden leaf fell in my cat’s world, the words

f
e
l
l,

too.

And I was off and running, learning something new.

Little Cat’s Luck is out now, another verse novel by Marion Dane Bauer, who now appreciates verse novels, and another example of an old writer learning new tricks.

little cat's luckThis time, at least, I don’t have the embarrassment of having denigrated concrete verse before I discovered it for myself. And it’s reminded me to keep my door open to ideas that are new to me. It’s the best way I know to keep a long career alive.

I wonder what I can discover next.

What Stories Are Made of

old woman“So many lives
filled
with longing.

It’s what stories―
all our stories―
are made of.”


from my book
Little Dog, Lost

The Healing Power of Story

1-28groszIt was Isak Dinesen who said, “All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.” And I have found that truth to be one of the most basic of my existence . . . and my career.

I don’t mean to suggest that I have borne more sorrows than others. Every life holds sorrows, and I have had the good fortune of having a way to process and grow through mine that feeds me on many levels. The stories I spin teach me, encourage me, comfort me.

Stephen Grosz, author of The Examined Life, discussing the ways stories can help us to make sense of our lives, says if “we cannot find a way of telling our story, our story tells us—we dream these stories, we develop symptoms, or we find ourselves acting in ways we don’t understand.”

And fortunately, we don’t have to understand ourselves, through and through, before we sit down to write for our work to serve as an effective catalyst. Inevitably, our deepest truths will present themselves in the topics we are drawn to and in the resolutions our stories discover. I have always found that one of the best ways of knowing what I believe, what I am feeling, what I desire is to read my own stories.

If I’m reaching deeply to find my stories, not merely assembling them from the bits and scraps that make up my external world to try to impress some imagined audience, it isn’t possible for them to lie.

The constant work of my own stories has been to process and resolve a sense of abandonment. It took me many years to understand where that hidden fear came from, and even then understanding its origins requires some guessing. But drawing on the emotional power of that ancient fear has fueled stories from On My Honor to Little Dog, Lost. In fact, it has fueled so many stories that I have sometimes wondered, if I were finally to heal myself so deeply as to banish the fear entirely, whether I would have any stories left to tell.

I suspect the truth is, though, that healing doesn’t work that way. While I may feel less vulnerable in my daily life than I once did—at least in part because of finding resolution to that sense of abandonment through my stories—that childhood vulnerability will always excite my imagination.

It’s like my favorite color, a rich auburn. I knew that color drew me powerfully long before the day I happened to be unpacking a box of childhood toys and came across Tim, my beloved teddy bear. Guess what color he is. Of course, a rich auburn! That color was imprinted on my adult heart even though I hadn’t seen Tim—or thought about him—for many years. And discovering the well-worn bear in a box didn’t make my love of auburn go away. The only difference knowing makes is that I sometimes smile at myself when an autumn landscape of rusts and golds or a mop of flaming hair makes me catch my breath.

Tim

Tim

My dear old Tim continues to live inside me and to deliver comfort even though I’ve outgrown the stuffed toy.

And so I continue to mine the deep ache the theme of abandonment delivers for me and to nudge myself to move beyond it. There are, after all, other feelings to be experienced, other unresolved issues—even from my own history—to be mined.

Other healing to be accomplished.

What a blessing it is to live a career that both reaches outward to touch and heal others and inward to satisfy and heal myself.

Second Time Around . . . the Novel in Verse

little-dogThe first time I wrote a novel in verse, Little Dog, Lost, I felt as though I had just stepped onto the moon. After forty years of writing and publishing, I was doing something entirely new . . . for me. In fact, I was doing something I had disapproved of in times past. “Poetry novels,” I had been known to expound, with my nose pointed rather high, “are too often neither. They aren’t poetry and they don’t work as novels.”

It goes without saying that the world hasn’t been waiting for my approval in this matter. Since Karen Hesse’s groundbreaking Out of the Dust, verse—if not necessarily poetry—is a form that has been used for novels many, many times. My decision to try one myself wasn’t groundbreaking for anyone but me.

I discovered how much fun the form is to work with once I got past my first panic. I had at my disposal the compelling rhythms I use in writing a picture book, the satiny flow, the carefully orchestrated sound, the distinct taste of each word on my tongue. But I didn’t have to draw my story to a conclusion after four-hundred or so words. I could keep right on going!

And once I realized that, I was hooked. So hooked that I returned to the form last winter.

I entered the second verse novel, Peggotty, with much more confidence. It’s another animal story, this time about a calico cat who leaves home, not quite intentionally, in pursuit of a flying leaf. She has adventures—and babies—and eventually returns home, accompanied by more than her litter of kittens. I aimed it somewhat younger and, as a consequence, found myself writing in shorter lines. But beyond that, the experience of writing the two stories was much the same. And it was still fun.

This time, though, in the midst of my fun, I gradually grew more aware of what I was leaving out, the aspects of a novel that are less apt to happen on the page in verse, the aspects of verse novels in general that had prompted me to find them deficient before I decided to write one myself.

A single word . . . introspection. I have no difficulty inhabiting my characters in third person when I am writing standard prose. And I have always considered giving the reader an intimate experience of the protagonist one of the marks of strong fiction. But writing in third person in verse, I found language carrying me along far more than my characters’ psyches.

Now maybe that experience of distance from my characters came from my decision to tell my story through a narrator, someone I don’t usually allow into my stories. No doubt, it also came from the fact that I am exploring more than one character.  But a lot of it seemed to come from the way the language flows, pulling along the story, giving me little opportunity, it seemed, to dip inside.

It’s what I love about writing picture books, the way language is equal with story and character, the way I get to revel in language, not always having, first and foremost, to move the story. When I write stories in prose, language takes a back seat to character. In fact, language is limited by character, even in third person, because the entire story in a subtle way passes through the main character’s consciousness and therefore is imprinted by his or her language.  

But my question remains: what makes these novels verse? (I won’t even use the word poetry, because few, if any, qualify as poetry.) Is it just the broken lines?

If it is, we have nothing but chopped up prose. Surely there must be more, a certain intensity of focus, a heightening of feeling, a precision of language.

Every choice we make—first person or third, omniscient or standing in close to a single character, prose or verse—brings limitation as well as strengths to our work. The point is to understand and accept both.

So perhaps depth of characterization is necessarily lost in the attention to language and sound and flow, not to mention the concentration on short, intense bursts of feeling. But I’m still asking the question and probably will continue to ask it through the next verse novel I embark on: Is it possible to explore character as deeply in a verse novel as in prose? If it isn’t—and my experience of others’ work as well as my own is that it doesn’t usually happen—are the strengths of the form enough to be worth so deep a sacrifice?

To Teach or Not to Teach

bk_honorI couldn’t begin to count the number of letters I’ve received from young readers that say something like, “When I read On My Honor I learned always to tell the truth.” Each time I’m tempted to write back and say, “Really?”

Teachers love to ask their students to identify the “theme” of a story, and there’s nothing wrong with that concept. It asks the reader to look beneath the story action for meaning. And every story, whether it intends to or not, has meaning. The meaning can, quite simply, be found in the resolution of the story problem. If the thief gets caught, the theme—without needing to be stated—is “Crime doesn’t pay.” If he doesn’t, the theme is something entirely different, perhaps even “If you want something, take it.” Or maybe something much more subtle. Maybe the uncaught thief suffers in some other more interesting way which says, “Be true to yourself. You’re the one you have to live with.”

But that doesn’t mean that stories—at least not subtle, interesting, good stories—are written to teach. We don’t assume that adults read novels to be taught “lessons.” Why should stories written for young people be different ? Except, perhaps, that we’re always looking for occasions to improve the young.

Not long ago someone on a children’s literature ­­­­­list serve asked, “Why do writers object to having their work called ‘didactic’? Surely they want their readers to learn from their stories.”

And the answer is, “Yes . . . and no.” We don’t enter our stories with some piece of wisdom we want to teach, we come with questions we are compelled to ask. Such as, Where does my friend’s responsibility end and mine begin? (On My Honor.) What does it mean to be part of a family? (Runt) How do I find comfort and meaning? (Little Dog, Lost).

In On My Honor Joel feels responsible for Tony’s bad judgment and thus his death, though Joel is not, in fact, responsible for it, except tangentially. The story’s resolution doesn’t exonerate Joel, but it does bring him out on the other side . . . into feeling his father’s all-encompassing love. In the final moment of the story, being in that love is enough. We know the pain won’t be gone in the morning—Tony will still be dead and Joel will still feel guilty for his part in the fatal accident—but we also know Joel’s father will still be there, and that’s what matters.

It’s the feeling that gives the story its meaning. I suppose you could say it presents the theme, but I have never put the theme into words and I never will. To do so would be to diminish it. What can be felt in that final story moment is larger than anything that could be said, certainly larger than any moral that might be imposed on it.

A theme is not a lesson to be stamped in the middle of the reader’s forehead. It is a truth a writer has struggled with and found some nourishment in. And it is experienced—that’s what a story does, draws the reader into an experience—rather than proclaimed.

I once heard a Newbery medalist tell about her grandson’s asking her for the theme of her award-winning novel. He needed to know for an assignment. She said, “Well, I suppose it’s . . .” and he wrote what she said. He got a D on his paper. The teacher told him he’d gotten the theme wrong!

What do my stories mean? Well, Little Dog, Lost means what the reader feels. It means the longing the reader experiences as a dog searches for a boy, as a boy searches for a dog, as an old man searches for a connection of any kind again. It means the joy everyone feels—characters and readers alike—when they find one another.

If the story works, when you have experienced all that longing, been rewarded by all that joy, you may not have learned anything, but you will be changed . . . just a bit.

And that’s what stories are for.