Category Archives: Very Little Princess

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.

To Save Yourself

The object of art is not to make salable pictures. It is to save yourself.
     —Sherwood Anderson to his son

writingLast week I talked about some of the financial realities of being a writer, and this week I’m turning the coin to its other side. I want to talk about why we write, why any of us comes to art of any kind.

When I was teaching in the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, we would, from time to time, have students show up who were desperate to publish. I don’t mean just that they hoped to publish. Everyone came in hoping, of course. But I mean they had set a goal for themselves and it was the only thing they could see. By the end of their two-year program they had to have a contract in hand.

Thus they didn’t approach their work by examining their hearts, asking what they wanted, needed to write. They asked instead what was selling out there, what the market wanted, and they were convinced if they could only find the secret answer, they would succeed.

Their passionate search reminded me of the times I’ve had an aspiring writer come up to me and say something like, “Well, you wrote about [fill in the blank]. That must be what editors are wanting now. I’m going to write about that.”

No point in explaining that even if my book was published because of its topic (which was probably not the case) and even if the topic did happen to be in just then (which probably wasn’t the case, either), by the time they could get their book written and delivered to a publisher any currently in topic would surely be on its way out. I never say it because it would sound like “This is my turf, stay off it.” But it is the truth.

And there is a deeper truth. Choosing to write a story—or paint a picture—because that’s what we think someone will want to buy, can be the most direct route to failure.

I used to say to my students whose desperation was showing, “I know it’s hard, but put aside all thought of publication. Your job while you are here is to find out who you are, what stories are yours to write. It’s only in that search that you can have any hope of success.”

Good advice, if I do say so myself, but what does it mean and how can any of us do that?

Sherwood Anderson didn’t say to his son, “The object of art is to make a living.” He said, “The object of art … is to save yourself.”

But save ourselves how?

We begin, in my experience, by mining our own energy. We latch onto story ideas because there is something about an idea that draws more ideas the way a magnet pulls in iron filings. I never ask myself why a particular idea appeals to me. I simply take note of the buzz that it generates in my brain once it lodges there.

Looking at the reason behind that excitement would be a buzz killer. If I did that, my story would get too small. I’d end up looking only at myself, and my energy would dribble away.

When my son died, about eight years ago, I was writing early readers for Random House Stepping Stone. And so, despite what was happening in my life, I rummaged around for an idea for my next book. I found one in my own childhood fantasies about my dolls. I decided to write about a china doll that comes to life. The animated doll looks into her dollhouse mirror and finds herself so perfect that she must surely be a princess. She also decides that the flesh-and-blood, far-from-perfect human girl hovering over her must be meant to be her servant. Why not? And my story took off from there.

Very Little PrincessThat’s where it started, but not where it went. A new element showed up between my childhood fantasies of animate dolls and the writing of my story. I discovered that the girl’s tear brought the doll to life. And ultimately that tear turned The Very Little Princess into a story about mortality. What else could I write about at such a time?

I didn’t stop to notice until the story lay before me, completed, that I was writing about my son’s death. But I let my grief into the story because my grief was the substance I had to work out of just then. And that’s what made The Very Little Princess mine, a story only I could write.

I never asked what the market might want. I didn’t even ask what the editor I was working with wanted. I simply wrote to save myself without knowing that was what I was doing. (And then, incidentally, I rewrote to satisfy the editor, who found herself surprised by what she received. But I rewrote keeping the heart of my grief as the energetic core of the story.)

The story that matters, always, is the one that saves us, the one only I—only you—can write. And curiously enough, that also usually turns out to be the story we have the best chance of selling.

“Refusing Them the Right to be Hurt”

 This is a letter I received from a fellow writer and reader of my blog after I talked last week about one reader’s reaction to A Very Little Princess, a young novel of mine some adults consider too painful for young readers.

bk_honorThank you, Moira. I will let your good letter speak for itself:

Dear Marion Dane Bauer,

Your latest webpage column, “Really Touched Me,” really touches me in a very pertinent way right now.

The book I’m writing was originally going to be short and about a single incident. I reread “On My Honor” for inspiration. But, quite unexpectedly, my book grew, collecting and incorporating characters, scenes and life experiences I’ve gathered over the decades. I love the story, and I love writing it, but one thing is always at the back of my mind. The story has to do with a girl who’s 11 and 3/4ths (she would insist that I mention the 3/4ths) who must make a choice about facing a grim reality of life. The choice is imposed upon her by a beloved aunt. My protagonist mulls over it for days, and, thinking that since what she must do is deemed of no consequence by two kids her age and by adults whose opinions she’s asked for, she decides. Her choice blows up her interior world. But no one else thinks it should bother her, and certainly not as much as it does.

If I write it well, I hope that the reader feels my protagonist’s moral and ethical crisis and the pain that comes with it. But what lingers at the back, and often in the front, of my mind is, will it hurt children? Should I protect children from this pain? Will parents and possibly librarians and booksellers be as angry with me as they are with you about “On My Honor” and “The Very Little Princess?”

Nothing can stop me from writing the story—I love it too much, I want to share it, and one of my particularly aggressive characters would NEVER let me rest if I didn’t—but now and then I think, “Maybe I should just self-publish it and give copies to friends. Would an agent or publisher even want to read the entire manuscript about a girl who must choose whether to kill, and what a person should feel about killing?” But now I ask myself what you ask in your column, “… should the book have been withheld from those who would be touched, who would, perhaps, even grow a bit larger emotionally for accompanying this story journey?”

Your column reassured me that, whatever the outcome concerning finding an agent or a publisher, and any future reactions from adults, I have no choice but to allow my character to make *her* choice. With fictional children, as well as real ones, to refuse them the right to be hurt in learning the whole of being alive is to restrict the quality of those lives.

Thank you, thank you for your column. It’s just what I needed to read just when I needed to read it.

Very best regards,

Moira Manion

And Moira, I’m sure your story—with all its pain—will be exactly what some young readers need as well.

“Really Touched Me”

Very Little PrincessLast week I talked about an e-mail from a student. Here is one I just received from another reader:

 Dear Mrs. Bauer,

 My name is Mia and I am 8 years old. I am home schooled. I found one of your

 books at the library called The Very Little Princess and I loved it. When I was

 reading the story, I wanted to go into the story. The very last lines really

 touched me. I really hope to find other books you have written.

Maia’s response is particularly interesting given the nature of The Very Little Princess. I’ve had some rather angry letters from adults concerning that book, caring, responsible adults who felt betrayed by it. They found it entirely unacceptable that the story involves a mother who goes off and leaves her young daughter with a grandmother the girl has never met. Or that it centers around an arrogant doll who comes to life only to be faced with her own mortality. What kinds of topics are these for a pink-jacketed princess story? What kinds of topics are they for little girls, whatever the book jacket portrays?

It’s the old question, of course. To what extent do we need to protect our children from emotionally challenging material? Note, we’re not talking about pornography here, either the pornography of misappropriated sex or the pornography of violence. Rather we’re talking about a story that recognizes pain in another, the pain of having a mother who isn’t stable enough to continue being a mother, the pain of acknowledging that the joy of living in this sensory world is coupled, always, with the knowledge that our lives will end.

It is of particular interest to me that Maia responded to the last lines of the book. Here are those lines: 

“Does being made of blood and bones mean that I will die?” Regina asked suddenly one bright blue morning.

. . . “Not today, I think,” [Zoey’s grandmother] said.

So Zoey and Princess Regina have learned to live with that. Not today. Not today for dying or for Zoey’s mother coming back, either.

But today for waking, for being delighted to see one another, for dipping a corner of toast—or a crumb—into the runny yolk of a fried egg.

For smelling the good, dark smell of the earth.

Today for making up games in the throne room, too.

. . .  Together they have learned that today, every day, is a day to be brave in, a day to be alive in . . . a day to love in.

And if a few tears fall? Well, a good friend can always be counted on to wipe them away.

Isn’t that so?

I wonder, as I so often have before, who it is we are protecting when we ask that stories for children be swept clean of pain.

Clearly Maia got precisely what this difficult story is about . . . and it touched her!

Another child might have been put off by it. I acknowledge that. But because that is so, should the book have been withheld from those who would be touched, who would, perhaps, even grow a bit larger emotionally for accompanying this story journey? 

Another child who picked this book up in the library as Maia did, a child who didn’t want to feel what the story calls forth, would, most likely, have put it down very early on. And that’s as it should be.

The primary time where care should be taken is when a book has a captive audience, when a teacher or librarian (or a parent, for that matter) reads to children who have no choice but to listen.

The power of reading is the power of choice . . . for all of us. Out of nearly endless possibilities we choose the experience we want to have, the information we want to glean. The same choices must be available to young readers. 

And thankfully, in this society anyway, they usually are.

The Sadness of Maturity

bk_rose160 It was a lyrical picture-book text.  The subject was spring.  And it bounced back because the editor found the tone, somehow, too sad. 

My agent was bemused, but when he passed the comment on to me, I understood.

An undercurrent of sadness often shows through in my writing.  There is, truth be told, an undercurrent of sadness in me.

I have never been a jolly type, even when I was a child.  I have always been thoughtful, even pensive.  I love to laugh–don’t we all?–but making others laugh is rarely my goal.  And I simply can’t write comedy.  When I try, the words on the page feel instantly false.  Or at least they feel inconsequential.  The writers I admire most deeply are the ones like Katherine Paterson who can make you laugh and then, in the next breath, make you cry. 

The laughter makes the tears more heartfelt.  The tears make the laughter more sweet.  How I would love to be able to do both!

I once heard someone refer to “the sadness of maturity,” and when I heard the phrase, I knew it was right.  Part of maturity is simply accepting the sadness we have all gathered throughout our lives. 

This time of year is always a challenging one for me.  My son died on February 9th, six years ago.  I’ve never been a believer in anniversaries, except as something to choose to celebrate.  And after Peter died, I saw no reason to renew my grief each year and didn’t expect to have it happen.

Oddly, I’ve discovered that the memory of the time of my son’s death seems to live in the cells of my body.  My body remembers even when I tell myself that this month, this day is no different than any other.  My very cells seem to grieve.

And my stories grieve, too.  Every time of year.  Peter’s death changed who I am.  How could it not change my stories? 

The first novel I wrote after my son’s death was The Very Little Princess.  I had presold the story to Stepping Stones, Random House, based on a brief description.  A tiny china doll comes to life and, upon seeing her own perfection in the dollhouse mirror, decides that, obviously, she is a princess.  The doll is equally certain that the not-nearly-so-perfect giantess looming over her is her servant.

A fun premise.  Right?  Except that in my hands it became a story of loss, a story of mortality.  By the end, the doll comes truly to life–becomes not just animated but flesh and blood, mortal–by learning to cry.  “I know this isn’t what you’re expecting,” I told the editor when I turned in the manuscript, “but in this season of loss, this is what I can do.”  She was brave to accept it.

Are tears a problem in stories for young people?  It depends, of course, on the age of the intended readers.  I have received a couple of furious letters from adults who thought this novella hurtful to their young readers.  And I understand.  The younger children are, the more protective we are . . . and need to be.  But on the other hand, we are not a culture that deals well with sad endings, whoever the audience may be.  And we can’t pretty up our children’s lives as if they lived in a Disney story.

Still . . . if I am ever jealous of another writer, it is of those who can write funny, especially those who can write funny and still say something important, still touch deep places in our hearts.

But I am who I am.  My life has been what it has been.  And there is no question, the sadness of maturity informs my work.  Even, apparently, when I’m exalting spring.