Tag Archives: author

I want to be famous…

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.

     

Credit: godchild78 | morguefile.com

                                                                                           Naomi Shihab Nye

The Tale of a Picture Book

Jump, Little Woods Ducks is my fourth picture book to be illustrated by the naturalist, photographer Stan Tekeila.  While most of my picture books have been more traditionally illustrated by artists, working with Stan has been a privilege and a joy.

On our first book together, Baby Bear Discovers the World, Stan said, “You write the story.  I’ll make the photos happen.”  I did, and he did.

He borrowed twin black bear cubs from a wildlife reserve and took them in his truck to different locations.  There he set them up to perform the acts of the runaway baby bear in my text.  Stan used twins, as filmmakers often do when working with young human children, so that if one wasn’t cooperating he would have a chance of getting what he needed from the other.  He captured the photos, and we had a book.

The next two books, Some Babies are Wild and The Cutest Critter, were concept books, not stories.  I knew what I wanted to do, present baby animals in different kinds of behavior and then turn to a comparison with a human baby.  So once I had created the text and shown it to Stan, he presented me with multiple options from his rich stock of photos.  And in each case, we had a book.

When Stan and I decided to collaborate on a picture book about wood ducks, we thought it would be easy.  After all, Stan already had thousands of photos of wood ducks.  So we sat down and talked through their life-cycle, which is what I planned to base my story on.  Then I created the text, and he supplied the photos.  We both thought we had a book.  My text did what I wanted it to do, and Stan’s photos were, as always, technically superb and showed precisely what I’d asked for them to show.

One problem.  Wood ducks—all ducks, I suppose—are beautiful but . . . well, not exactly expressive.  They have a way of just standing there or just wading there or just floating there that falls short of compelling.  When I saw the results of our collaboration, for the first time I longed to return to working with an illustrator, someone who could tweak the images.  Lift a wing, cock a head, brighten an eye . . . anything to make these creatures more compelling.

The editorial staff at AdventureKEEN must have had a similar thought, because after a period of silence, they sent me an assortment of Stan’s most interesting, most active wood duck photos and said, “Can you start over again and make a story from these?”

In case you don’t know, that isn’t the way picture-book writers work.  We don’t begin with images and find a story, we begin with concept or story and the images follow.

However, in forty years of writing for children and 100 books published for different ages and in different genres I have learned a few things.  One of them is that pleasing editors is a useful skill . . . and that doing so usually results in a better book.

So I sat down with Stan’s photos and immediately fell in love with those jumping babies.  Here was a reason to work with a photographer, not an illustrator.  You can draw a baby duck doing anything you want it to do, including eating with a knife and fork.  But these babies are real!  And they are actually jumping!  From high up in a tree!  And watching them do it quite takes your breath away!

So I began again, following not the life-cycle of wood ducks, but the progress of three little babies who don’t want to jump, however much their mother down there on the ground cajoles.

And I did what I do best, came up with language and story.  And Stan did what he does best, filled in the blanks with more photos.  (Can you get me a photo of what the baby ducks see when they look down from that tree?)

And at last we have a book.  It will be out in April.  A long journey, but worth every step.

Thank you, Stan, once more.  What shall we explore next?

The One Hidden Story

kitchen-table-wisdomHidden in all stories is the One story. The more we listen, the clearer that [universal] Story becomes. Our true identity, who we are, why we are here, what sustains us, is in this story.  The stories at every kitchen table are about the same things, stories of owning, having and losing, stories of sex, of power, of pain, of wounding, of courage, hope and healing, of loneliness and the end of loneliness. Stories about God.  In telling them, we are telling each other the human story.

                                                     

       Rachel Naomi Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom

The Secrets of Our Hearts

heart lock

Credit: Jacky | morguefile.com

In my last blog I talked about knowing ourselves, about using that knowledge as the basis of all we choose to write, even nonfiction.  I talked about knowing what we love, because that’s where all writing starts, with what we love, what gives us energy, what gives us hope.

But when it comes to writing fiction, we need to reach beyond what we consciously love.  We need to draw from the hidden parts of ourselves, the secrets of our hearts.
The first novel I ever wrote was called Foster Child.  Looking back now I see it as a well-meaning, overloaded, somewhat clumsy attempt to deal with important topics.  (Both religious and sexual abuse.)  It was, however, written with heart, the kind of heart that captured attention when it appeared in the world.  It also broke taboos so powerful in 1977 that they didn’t even need to be spoken, which, no doubt, contributed even more to the attention it received.

The topics came to me naturally.  As a clergy wife then, I had strong feelings about the proper and improper uses religion can be put to.  I had also fostered several children and had learned that foster children too often endure sexual abuse in the homes that rescue them.  I had strong feelings about that, too.  Riding on the energy of those feelings, I wrote my first novel.

7_29FosterChildInterestingly, though, it didn’t occur to me until years later to consider why I was so passionate about those abused foster children, passionate enough to spend months framing imagined experience into a story that I knew might be too controversial to ever be published.

The truth was, my passion came from a much deeper place than my surface knowledge of the abuse suffered by children in foster care.  It came from my own experience.  I had grown up in an intact family.  I had been constantly and routinely protected, as middle-class girls routinely were in the 40’s and 50’s.  Nonetheless, I had been sexually abused, my abuser my trusted godfather and family physician.

When I pounded out that first novel, I hadn’t forgotten that experience.  The memory has never gone underground.  But strange as it seems, I never thought about it as I wrote.  Not once.  Not consciously anyway.  Rather I thought about and felt passionate about abused foster children.  I transferred my own powerlessness, my impotent rage to my character.

I suspect that’s the way knowing informs stories for most writers.  We work not so much from conscious knowledge as from a magnetized core in our psyches, one that is at least partially hidden to us. Stories fly to that core like iron filings to a magnet.

In those stories we mine our own ferocity, our own passion, our own knowing.  And that knowing brings our characters to life, creates the illusion—sometimes even for us—that they live quite separately from us.  But whatever skins we dress them in, they are us.

Often they are the us we are struggling to know.

How might Foster Child have been different if I had been aware as I was writing that I was telling my own story?  I suspect I never would have made my way to the end.  I would have felt too vulnerable, too exposed.  My attempt at writing a first novel probably would have died, frozen by self-awareness.

In recent years I have begun from time to time to shed the protective scrim of fiction, to tell my own story in a straightforward way.  Does it make for a better story that way?  I’m not sure I can answer that.

I do know, though, that the garments of story have made it possible to spin my small personal experience into a much larger story, a varied and repeating one, and that’s good for a career.

Maybe it’s good for the stories, too.

The Heart Has Secrets

heart

Heart

Often we are reminded that the heart has secrets which it cannot share with anyone, not even with itself. This is true because there is in each one of us lingering desires that have long since spent themselves in overt or direct action; there are the throbs of impulses that have not become sufficiently articulate to define themselves; there are vague reactions to experiences that are so much a part of our very substance that we cannot distinguish them from our true selves. And yet, all these and more are a part of the secrets of the heart. The secrets of the heart are the raw material of the genuine spirit of the individual. They are the stuff of the Spirit that dwells deep within each one of us.

Howard Thurman