Category Archives: Runt

Sequel, Anyone?

Have you ever thought of taking the book Runt and making it a young adult series? Or at least adding a second book? I fell in love with this book as a young girl and here I am at 21 and I still adore this book and wonder why a sequel was not written. If you would be open to it I would love to send you some of the ideas I had about turning it into a 2 part collection. I myself am a published poet. Please let me know your opinions.

LK

RuntIt’s not an unusual query except for one thing.  That question typically comes from young readers who have just now discovered my novel Runt and are looking for a sequel. The fact that L is 21, read Runt as a child and is still thinking about my story, still wanting more of my characters, wanting even to contribute ideas for that more, quite captures my heart. And it brings me to an explanation.

I had once intended to write a sequel for Runt, but I never did.

The story of Runt is the story of a wolf pup, the last of a litter born to a pair of wild parents in the wilderness.  The last born and, as the title reveals, the runt.  The other pups are all given names that have to do with their strongest skill, their most important means of serving the pack—Leader, Sniffer, Runner, Thinker. But this last one, who looks exactly like his dark father, is so undersized that he has little chance of surviving, let alone serving the pack. Or so his father assumes when he sees him. And thus the name Runt.

As the story plays out, Runt does survive. He struggles to prove himself to his father and fails, again and again, but by the end he finds his voice, calls his hungry family to a feast, and earns the name Singer. A perfect set up for a sequel. Even the title of the story was obvious, Singer.

I knew how my second story would play out. Singer would begin with the young wolf leaving his family, striking out on his own and would end with his finding a mate and with the birth of his first pups.

I began by rereading Runt to find out, first, if I still liked it, if I wanted to return to the world of that story. I did. The setting, the characters, the possibilities for more story all came alive in my mind. So I began to research the lives of wolves again, to place myself solidly in their world.  And as I deepened the knowledge I had gathered to write the first book, something began to happen.

When I wrote Runt, I was emulating an author I deeply admired when I was a child, Felix Salten, who wrote books steeped in the natural world, such as Bambi, books in which the animal characters remained true to their real natures except for one thing. He gave them the power of human speech. And so that is what I did. I remained completely true to the reality of wolves in the natural world except for giving them the power of human speech.

Returning to my research, though, I began to notice something I had not noticed—perhaps chosen not to notice?—when I was preparing to write the first book. We understand the real communication of wolves among themselves only very partially, but we do know it is intricate, nuanced, complex, highly refined. To give them human speech, however much I had needed to do so for the purposes of my story, doesn’t enhance their reality. It diminishes it.

Ultimately, I decided that while I was still very fond of Runt, certainly didn’t feel I needed to apologize for anything about it, including its talking animals, I had grown to respect wolves too deeply to invest them with speech again, at least not while I was also trying to demonstrate their reality.

And so what probably would have been a successful sequel was shelved before it ever reached paper.

Does this decision matter now, except perhaps to L and the other occasional readers who long for another story about my gutsy but challenged wolf pup. Not very much. Except, perhaps, as an example of the deepening questions we writers must ask ourselves every time we set out to tell a story.

What implicit assumptions lie beneath our stories? Who or what might be helped by those assumptions? Who or what might they hurt?

It’s the question we have come belatedly to ask when we storytellers reach into human cultures not our own. It’s one we need to hold up about our natural world, too.

Joy in Fiction?

4_1We are programed, each of us, to pay attention to the negative emotions, fear, anger, jealousy, sorrow. Being aware that we are afraid and tending to that fear is a matter of survival, even today. We don’t need a saber-toothed tiger waiting to pounce to justify our fear. A semi barreling toward us will do very nicely. Or a rumor that there are going to be cut-backs at the office.

But joy is another matter entirely. It comes on the breath of a spring day and is gone with the passing breeze. Tara Brach, in a recent dharma talk, recommended pausing for ten breaths when we are visited by joy. Ten breaths to catch it, hold it, and let it penetrate our bones. Because if we don’t pause to notice joy, it flies away.

Fine advice for living a life, but I found myself asking, how does that piece of wisdom relate to the stories we tell? Is the fact that we are programed to notice and to keep thinking about the negative emotions the reason the great tragedies have so much more power than the comedies, why Paradise Lost has more impact on the psyche than Paradise Regained?

The complaint circulates often, especially about young-adult fiction, “But it’s so depressing! Why does the literature for our young people have to be so depressing?” And part of the reason is certainly that, in our culture, happily ever after endings have come to be seen as unsophisticated. But I suspect some of the answer lies here, that the happy stories, the funny stories melt away. The ones that pull up dark feelings stay. And we all want our stories to stay.

Part of the reason for darkness in our stories lies, of course, in the very nature of stories. Stories are based on struggle. If you don’t have struggle, if your character doesn’t have a problem that feels really important, at least to that character, you don’t have a story. At a father-son book club, a father once asked me, “Why does the father in Runt have to behave the way he does? Why can’t he be kinder? Why can’t he acknowledge and support his son?” And the only answer I could give was, “Because this is a story. If the father had accepted Runt as we all want him to, I would have no story to tell. If all had been fine in Runt’s world, you wouldn’t care. You would, in fact, be bored.”

This “rule” of storytelling is so strong and so built into our unconscious expectations that if a story starts out, as they sometimes do, with all being right with the world, we read tensely, waiting for disaster to strike. It’s a story, after all. Disaster has to strike. Our lives can sometimes go along smoothly for days, months, years, but lives as they are lived don’t make good stories. A life can only become the material of a story when someone begins selecting, leaving out all the too-easy bits, perhaps, too, leaving out the joy.

No, I’m not advocating more happy endings to our stories. A story’s ending must reflect what a story means, dark or light. But I wonder, is there a way, while we’re dealing with struggle, while we are creating an emotional connection to our readers through strong negative emotions, to occasionally build in ten breaths for the savoring of joy?

It’s just a thought.

 

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.

Is Remembering Enough?

YouthEvery time I happen across a children’s television program where adult actors are pretending to be children I am grateful that those of us who write for young people are permitted to appear in the world in our adult clothes. We are even allowed to grow old! 

What we must do, however, to make the leap from our own world to those we serve is to remember what most adults prefer to forget … our own childhoods. 

It’s understandable that few adults want to retain a deep knowledge of their own young selves. Dependence, vulnerability, unfulfilled longing are painful to relive. But while we who write for young people are commending ourselves for our ability to stay connected with those places in ourselves, perhaps we should pause to ask a crucial question. Is remembering enough? 

Is the most intimate knowledge of our own childhood selves sufficient to create a connection with today’s young readers? Especially if it’s been a long time since we ourselves were young? Or is it possible that childhood itself has changed so profoundly that we are at risk of losing our ability to reach our audience? And when I say we, I mean mostly me  … and those other writers out there who are no longer young.

There are, of course, fundamental facts about childhood that don’t change with an evolving culture. Or they change so slowly as to feel constant. And the younger the child we are writing for, the easier it is to find a reliable empathy from our own experience. Very young children are connected primarily with families, and families have a certain sturdy consistency.

But smart phones and the Internet and video games and whatever the next innovation might be do, in fact, alter the experience of childhood. And the revolving landscape of movie actors, slang, and junk food has always been a plague for writers to sort through as they try to make their stories feel current without risking their being almost instantly out of date once they are published. Styles of parenting change. Schools do, too. And the world that seems to be tumbling around us at an ever accelerating rate impacts children as much, if not more, than it impacts us. But how? How do they experience their future as they witness the disaster our climate is sliding into? I came to consciousness during World War II, but that was a war that we all assumed would end one day … and it did. Or seemed to. What is it like to be born into an unending landscape of war? 

RuntOne solution, of course, to staying contemporary with our young people is to write about a future that lies beyond their reach and ours. Many do that these days. Writing historical fiction is another way to avoid missteps in portraying today. That’s what I’m doing in Blue-Eyed Wolf, the young-adult novel I’m working on now. Another solution for me is to write in an old-fashioned, classic tone set in no particular time as I did in Little Dog, Lost. Animal stories with almost no human characters such as Runt work, too. All those kinds of stories are mostly time safe.

I grow more aware every year, though, of the maneuvering I have to do to stay fresh, to stay in territory where I have authority, to stay publishable. And I’m aware, too, that I can no longer bring the boundless energy to my work that I see younger writers all around me bringing to theirs. 

But that last—all that young energy coming up behind me—brings with it a wholly agreeable surprise. I once was out there pushing the boundaries of the field I entered with such passion and such love. Now I settle back into the flow, knowing writers all around me are pushing the boundaries still, that their work is robust and daring and filled with a whole new passion and love. And those enthusiastic, hard working, young writers bless my work by keeping our field alive.

Norma Fox Mazer taught in the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts with me. And she said to me one day, “You realize, don’t you, that we’re grooming our own replacements.” We laughed because, of course, it was true. 

What better way to experience just a hint of immortality?

Where Do Ideas Come From?

ideaI got the idea for this blog when I was meditating this morning. Yes, I know, I’m not supposed to get ideas meditating. In fact, that’s supposed to be a time for leaving ideas behind. But when my mind loses its quiet focus on my breath and skitters off to someplace else, ideas about what to write or how to fix something I’m currently writing are one of the more productive results it can return with. “Thinking,” I remind myself happily as I tuck the idea away, and then I return to my breath.

It’s the most frequent question fiction writers are asked, wherever we go, whatever age readers we’re talking to: Where do your ideas come from?

And it is probably the hardest question to answer.

I always want to say: They come from everywhere . . . and anywhere. And that, of course, is true. It also gives absolutely no satisfaction to the questioner. So here’s an attempt to define “everywhere and anywhere.”

Five BooksOn My Honor started from something that actually happened, not to me but to a friend of mine, when we were both about thirteen years old.

A Bear Named Trouble began from an AP news story, only about two paragraphs long, about an adolescent brown bear that had broken repeatedly into the Anchorage Zoo. How wonderful! I thought. A wild bear who wants to live in a zoo! What a perfect story!

Runt came out of my remembering my passionate love for Felix Salten’s novels when I was a child, the most famous of which is Bambi. I wanted to write a story that I, and I hoped others, could love as I had loved those.

A Very Little Princess and its prequel, A Very Little Princess: Rose’s Story, came from fantasies I carried around as a child. I used to pretend I was a three-inch-high doll living in a family of normal sized people.

Little Dog, Lost began in a very different place. It started with my wanting to write a story that would work for young readers without giving up the natural flow of my own style. Thus I turned to verse to give lots of white space on the page. Through verse I can deliver sentences in bite-sized chunks without shortening them, chunks that are easier for developing readers to manage. And the topic? From a combination of my own much-loved little dog, a cavalier King Charles spaniel named Dawn, and a friend’s service dog, Ruby, a terrier mix with the most astonishing airplane-wing ears I’ve ever seen. And since stories are always based on a problem—no problem, no story—I simply asked myself what problem would work best with a dog as a main character? To get her lost, of course.

But the topic is only the beginning of any story. What brings a story alive is the writer’s heart. So always, whatever else I’m writing, I’m really writing both about myself and for myself, about my own longing, my own experience of being “lost,” my own joy at being found.

What a perfect way to make a living, feeding my own heart again and again and again. And if I do the job well enough, my hope always is that I’ll manage to feed your heart, too, wherever my story idea might come from.