Tag Archives: children’s books

The Longest Night, the Sweetest Sound!

I couldn’t have imagined a sweeter or more fulfilling way to draw my extended 80th birthday celebration to a close.

I began celebrating in October by taking my daughter and daughter-in-law to Vermont to revisit my old teaching home at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

In November, my actual birth month, my daughter gave me a party, and various friends invited me to smaller celebrations.  My daughter hosted a family party, too.  (She was busy those days.)  My birthday gift was the surprise of finding my grandson Barrett home from Tampa, Florida, for the occasion.  Then on the actual date my partner, Barb, and I had a delightful just-us evening at a restaurant we hadn’t explored before.

Longest Night

But the climax came on December 9th.  Barb and I traveled to Providence, Rhode Island, for a musical performance of my picture book The Longest Night, created and performed by Community MusicWorks.  The program, Songs of Darkness and Light, included a folktale from Brazil, “How We Got the Night,” along with my winter solstice picture book.

Community MusicWorks is a community-based organization that uses music education and performance to build lasting and meaningful relationships between children, families and professional musicians.  Thirteen resident musicians perform concerts throughout Providence and surrounding communities and offer a free after-school music education program.  This is the third year they have performed The Longest Night.  It was my first time to be able to attend.

I was utterly charmed!  Storyteller Valerie Tutson read, no, she performed my text.  Ted Lewin’s stunning watercolors filled a screen.  And various musicians, some wearing half masks of the animals in the story—crow, moose, fox, chickadee—played Schoenberg and Bach and Haydn, carrying the story forward on wings of song.

Ted and I were asked to join the musicians on the stage at the end of the performance to talk about our work on the book, so I had a chance to explain my inspiration for this small story.

The Longest Night, I told them, began with a question: Why, I asked myself, does the longest night fall at the beginning of winter, not in the middle?  Wouldn’t the middle make more sense?

The answer when I went searching for it turned out to be simple.  As the days grow shorter and colder, the ground freezes and snow falls and stays.  Once the ground is covered with snow, the sun’s rays reflect and bounce back into space, leaving behind little warmth for our air.  And so the longest night becomes the beginning of winter because the climb out is harder and slower than the drop in.

I was delighted to know that, because it tells me more than why winter stays.  It tells me also that with every day growing longer, the beginning of winter is also our first step toward spring!

What a heartening thought, especially for us winter-locked Minnesotans.

And what a life-enhancing experience to hear a piece of mine that I particularly love come to life through another artistic medium

I’ll confess that when I rose at the end of the program to step up onto that stage, Valerie, the storyteller, had to reach down to give this old lady a helping hand.  I’m 80 now and 80 showed.  But oh . . . I am 80 and so blessed!

The Stuff of Stars

My Favorite Book

How often I have been asked, especially when I used to speak in schools:  “Which is your own favorite of all your books?”

“The one I’m working on right now,” I always said.  “That has all my attention and all my heart.  The rest I remember fondly, but by the time each book comes out, I have left it behind for the one I’m working on now.”

And through a forty-plus-year career, that has remained true.  My commitment—and therefore my love—lies with the work in front of me.

But some books live closer to my heart than others, and the one that will officially come into the world on September 4, 2018, rises above all of its one-hundred-plus siblings.

It’s a picture book.  The text is exactly 431 words long.  (The ability to count words, instantly and accurately, is one of the many gifts offered by my computer.)  It is illustrated by the incomparable Ekua Holmes.  (Google her!  Just see her work!)  And the title is The Stuff of Stars.

The Stuff of StarsThe Stuff of Stars is the story of the Big Bang, of stars exploding into death, and of our Earth, this fragile blue ball, this lonely, lucky planet, that evolved out of all that dying.  It is the story of the birth of a child, of the birth of every child.  It is the celebration of the power of Creation and of the power of Love, one and the same.

The Stuff of Stars is my hymn against every terror of the twenty-first-century.  And whatever happens to this small book out there in the publishing world, I suspect it will always be, for me, the capstone of my career.

How long did it take to conceive and to write this beloved piece?  Years.  Years and years.  The seed was planted in a program by Michael Dowd I attended long ago at my Unitarian Universalist Church.  Death through Deep-Time Eyes was its topic.  I listened and thrilled, and I carried the resonance of those ideas away with me.  I knew that someday I would write what I had heard, but I had no idea how I might do so.

I am not a scientist, either by training or by inclination.  I did, however, grow up with a chemist father who taught me to be skeptical of all that cannot be weighed and measured.  And his respect for solid logic has always undergirded my world.

Even when I was a child, though, I knew there was more to life than what my father saw and acknowledged.  (When I took a degree in literature in college he was bewildered.  “What is there to study in stories?” he asked.)

And so when I approached the writing of The Stuff of Stars, I began with my own awe but carried that awe into the reading of science.  It’s amazing how much reading I have to do before the most basic understanding surfaces.  And it’s equally amazing how much understanding must be gathered to come up with a 431-word poem celebrating science’s knowledge of creation.

All this has taken years and years, the sowing of the seed of an idea, the study that led to its harvest; setting words down and taking them away again; turning to other writers to weigh and reweigh what I created; working with my agent, Rubin Pfeffer, and my editor, Liz Bicknell at Candlewick, who love The Stuff of Stars, too; watching Ekua’s progress as she turned the ineffable into breathtaking images.

Then waiting for the book to appear.

There is always a bit of a let-down after all that waiting when I hold a new book in my hands.  Even as the reviews come in—and they have been exceptional—I am overcome by a sense of loss, of letting go.

The Stuff of Stars is no longer mine, no longer Ekua’s, no longer Rubin’s or Liz’s either.  It will make its way into the world as the children of my flesh once did.  And it will be received well and it will be criticized and it will be ignored.  (Watching it be ignored will be the hardest piece of all.)

And I will stay home and move on to other books.  Indeed, I have already moved on.  But The Stuff of Stars is out there, or it will be in a few days, and my heart has gone out into the world with it.

I always love my books.  I couldn’t write them if I didn’t.  But some loves sing more passionately than others.

What is my own favorite of all my books?

Right now and for a long time to come it’s going to be The Stuff of Stars!

Following My Own Advice

Photo by Kat J on Unsplash

The letter from my editor was polite, even encouraging.  She said something like, “Marion, this is going to be a very, very powerful read, but I find some things about it puzzling.”

And then she went on to explain her puzzlement, including saying that she didn’t know who my main character was, a young boy whom the story inhabited closely from the first page to the last.

It’s a novel, and it’s a novel I’d been working on for a long time.  Far too long.  At least that’s the way I was beginning to feel.  And though I had convinced myself that the manuscript was ready to be seen—I wouldn’t have submitted it otherwise—I had known the entire time I was working that something wasn’t quite right at the story’s core.

I began revising with the editor’s brief comments, reaching back in, finding a new place to stand in the story.  And then one day, having finished revising about five chapters, I looked ahead to the rest of the story and I could finally see what was wrong.  What had always been wrong from my first conception . . . with my character, with my story.

To resolve the problem that lay at the core of my novel, I needed to perform one simple but profound maneuver.  I needed to turn my central character, Ben, inside out!

Ben is reconnecting with his mother who abandoned him when he was three, and in my first conception of the story he is filled with resentment.  He doesn’t want to see her.  He’s there only because his parents said he had to be.  All he truly wants is for his life to go on as it has in the past, just him and his dad.

How many times have I said to developing writers, “Your character must want something?  Your main character’s desire is the energy that drives your story.”  And having said that dozens of times before writing classes, having said it hundreds of times in notes on manuscripts, I had failed to say it to myself.

What does Ben want?  When delivered to his mother, his only desire is a negative one, resistance.  And so the energy informing my story was anger, nothing else.  One of my early readers had even said, somewhat cautiously, “I wonder if this kid isn’t too angry?  It makes him hard to like.”

I had heard her comment, understood the truth in it, but I couldn’t imagine any way of presenting my story without that overwhelming anger.  So I kept working, committed to my original conception.  When my discomfort with the manuscript rose too high, I decided, as we writers are prone to do, that what was wrong with my story was me!  I’m getting too old.  I’m running out of energy.  Maybe even, running out of brain cells.

(There’s almost nothing that can’t be blamed on old in this maturity-denying society.)

It took my editor’s puzzlement and a new round of revisions to come back up against that truth.  When I arrived at it, at the understanding that my character was starting from the wrong place to carry my readers with me, I found myself holding months—no let’s be honest, years—of work in my hands and knowing it hadn’t yet come to anything worth reading.  And it was very possible it never would.

Sometimes that kind of darkness is just darkness.  Sometimes it’s the setting that allows the glimmer in a new idea to come through.

“What if,” I said to myself, “this boy, instead of being sullenly angry, is naively hopeful.  What if he is the one who engineers this meeting, confident he can get his mother to come home?  What if?”

“That would mean starting over from page 1,” said another voice, also mine.  “That would mean passing every single line of the story through this new lens.”  It was a discouraged voice.  A tired one.  Let’s face it, an old voice.

“Well, why don’t you try?” the more hopeful voice said again.  “Isn’t that what you would say to another writer?  Try it?  What do you have to lose?”

Why is it so much easier to teach others what I know than it is to apply my wisdom to my own work?

Which is the same as asking, Why is it so hard to follow my own advice?

Just in case you’re wondering, I am doing that now.

And guess what.  It’s working!

Writing Myself into Old

Credit: diannehope | morguefile.com

It’s the secret of life, I suppose, discovering where our own deepest energy lies and learning to reach into it, to mine it, to live it.

It’s certainly the secret of any kind of writing that must be spun out of the substance of our own psyches.

When I was young, I overflowed with ideas, and I wasn’t surprised when I picked one up to find the energy to fuel it attached.  I never asked myself why I wanted to write a particular story.  I just knew I did.

The story called to me, and I rarely understood where it had come from until long after it had made its way into the world.  I only began to discover what my story had to do with me when readers, more objective and therefore more clear-eyed than I, told me what I had said.

And through their discernment and through the questions I asked myself fed by that discernment, I began to be aware of the sources that feed my work.

I have been writing stories for young people, from babies to young adults, for a long time.  I have, in fact, written myself into old.  Old is, curiously enough, a destination I never really thought I would reach.  Mostly because our society teaches us that if we just will it to be so, we will never truly age.

For those coming after me, I’ll offer this small piece of wisdom.  Old is real and, unless we’re rescued through an early demise, it is also inevitable.

Old finds me searching for energy, not because I have run out, but because the energy I possess is no longer spread across so wide a field.  I can no longer pick up a story idea and find the fuel to propel it to its conclusion automatically attached.  And yet, the energy itself is still there, just stored in a deeper and less conspicuous place.

Recently, I encountered the work of two different women ahead of me on the path who refer to their 80’s as a time of great passion.  Such a curious idea to hold against our society’s image of the withering of age!  Even I, standing on the edge of 80, couldn’t help but wonder what they could mean.

But I’m beginning to understand.  The passion they speak of is a core that goes deep, the distilled essence of a long life, stretching all the way back to early childhood.  And while it doesn’t stand up and call attention to itself the way younger passions do, once tapped into, it is rich . . . rich.

The trick, though, is to find the source to tap.

I have always fed my writing with reading.  I don’t know any writer who doesn’t do the same.  Stories, after all, aren’t truly an imitation of life.  They are an imitation of other stories.

Old, though, has turned me into a persnickety reader.  I approach each book with an almost too-discriminating hunger.  I find myself searching for something richer, deeper, less predictable, less ordinary than most of what falls into my hands.  I can almost hear my mother saying, “If you’re not willing to eat what’s on your plate, you can’t truly be hungry.”  But I am.  I am.

I order up samples of electronic books, books chosen because they were recommended by someone whose opinion I value or because they have won awards.  And time after time after time, I read to the end of the sample and turn away, still searching.

Old has turned me into a persnickety writer, too.  I keep reaching for a form I’ve never tried before, a thought I have never thought before, and with more than 100 books published, I can tell you that’s a reach.  I find myself longing for a voice that I can feel reverberating but cannot name, for a story that asks questions I have not yet formed.

And yet the energy behind that undiscovered story still burns strong.

The answer to having written myself into old?  I don’t have one.  Not yet anyway.

Only to keep searching for that perfect book to read, the one that nourishes so deeply that it will propel me back into my own work.

Only to keep searching for the perfect container for my words, the one that will draw out the fire buried in my soul.

Children

Children have never been good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.

James Arthur Baldwin

Credit: sideshowmom
| morguefile.com