Tag Archives: children’s books

Truth of a different kind

Credit: kakisky | morguefile.com

Children who have been told the truth about birth and death will know, when they hear about Kris Kringle and Santa Claus and Saint Nicholas and the little babushka, that this is a truth of a different kind.

Margaret Mead

Riding Piggy Back

The best and most satisfying reason for writing a picture book isn’t just that they are fun to write, which they are.  They are sometimes enormously difficult, too, but still fun.

It isn’t that they are short, either, though short has its own blessings.  And its own challenges.  I am often reminded of Mark Twain’s apology for having written such a long letter.  He didn’t have time, he explained to his correspondent, to write a short one.

The best and most satisfying reason for writing a picture book, though, is to win the privilege of riding piggy back on a talented artist.

The first time an actual copy of one of my picture books arrives at my door always feels like Christmas, even if I have seen the illustrations through every step of the process, which I sometimes do.

Here are my words!  My words!  And look.  A person with talent beyond my richest imaginings has brought them to life on the page.

What a gift!

Winter Dance, my latest picture book, illustrated by Richard Jones, emerged into the world in October.  It has garnered three starred reviews, from Booklist, Kirkus, and Publishers Weekly.  (A starred review singles out a book as one of the best of the season.)  And it couldn’t be more clear that Richard’s illustrations are the primary reason for those stars.

I don’t say that out of false modesty.  My words are charmingly simple and even lyrical.  There is a touch of humor, too, something my work isn’t noted for.  And the text conveys solid information about animal behavior in winter.

But it’s Richard’s winsome fox, his appealing landscapes, his entire winter world that captures anyone who picks up this book, including reviewers.

. . .it’s Jones’ soft-lined, textured illustrations that steal the show, as they cast beautiful forest scenes across the page, using a cool wintry palette against which the fox’s orangey-red fur pops.  (Booklist)

Jones’ full-page illustrations, done in rich, muted earth tones, are stunningly designed and executed. (Kirkus)

Bauer’s verselike text pairs gracefully with smudgy and similarly understated scenes from British illustrator Jones: the text and artwork work in tandem to suggest the hushed onset of winter while carrying readers forward with the swiftness of a snow flurry.  (Publisher’s Weekly)

This particular picture-book text required weeks—even months—of writing and rewriting.  In fact, for reasons too complicated to explain here, I had to reconceive the whole thing after the editor had committed to my first version, a story about spring.  The editor turned down my first two, three, four attempts to revise before she and I together came up with the idea of a fox and the first snowfall and before I finally found a way to make those elements work.

I haven’t asked Richard how long it took for him to create his appealing paintings, but I’ll guarantee that despite the length of my labor, he labored longer and harder.

The writer has to come up with the idea, and the idea is key, of course.  But without the artist’s bringing another whole world of ideas to the page, the story would be only half born.

Thank you, Richard Jones, for your amazing work.  And thank you to all of the illustrators who, over the years, have brought my picture book texts to life.

I love riding piggy back!

I read because …

Credit: mconnors | morguefile.com

“I read because one life isn’t enough, and in the page of a book I can be anybody.”

Richard Peck

The odds against us …

Credit: cohdra | morguefile.com

…the odds against us are endless,
our chances of being alive together
statistically nonexistent;
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.
Lisel Mueller

Horrible

“your book on my honor is horrible.”                                                                                                                                                                    Savannah

On My Honor

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!”