Tag Archives: children’s books

Remembering Childhood

Marion 2nd Grade

Recently someone asked me, “Why is it that you have such detailed memories of your childhood?”  She commented that she did not.

I reached for an answer and came up with pure air.  Why do I remember?  Why doesn’t everyone?

Years ago, I had a student whose work was technically competent but quite lacking in emotional resonance.  One day during a manuscript consultation I said to her, “Tell me about your childhood.”  Her face began to glow.  “Oh,” she said.  “I had the most wonderful childhood!”

And that was precisely what was wrong with her work.

It’s not that you have to have had a uniquely difficult childhood to be able to write for children.  It is that nobody, nobody in the world has a wonderful childhood.  Exactly as nobody has a wonderful adulthood.  We all have days.  Some days are wonderful, to be sure.  Others are boring or challenging or downright painful.  But anyone who thinks she had a whole “wonderful childhood” has forgotten what that time was like.  And who can write successfully for children from such a place?

Ironically, though, I suspect that part of the reason I remember my childhood so vividly is because my mother was one of those “wonderful childhood” folks.  She spoke often of her own childhood on a Midwestern farm and always with deep reverence, so deep a reverence that I learned reverence, too.

My mother had such a strong need to remember her own childhood as perfect that she tried to make mine that way, too.  As a consequence she lied away every inconvenient truth.  And two passions pulled me into the career of my adult life, a profound reverence for childhood and an equally powerful need to tell children the truth.

I remember clearly the first time I ever wrote from that childhood place.  I was in college and, while I ordinarily occupied myself with more “productive” activities, things that might actually garner course credits, I sat down to my typewriter one quiet afternoon and tapped out a paragraph intended for no eyes but my own.  In a few words I described standing barefoot on a sunny sidewalk in my backyard, then stepping off into the cool tickle of the grass.  Only that.  But that paragraph emerged onto the page with lights flashing. “Important!  Important!” those lights said.  “Pay attention!  This matters!”

I did pay attention, because while the paragraph itself soon went the way of all scrap paper, the silken feel of the words, their heft and substance, stayed with me.  My mother’s reverence for childhood made those words shine.

It was many years later before I sat down to write about childhood again, and this time, carrying my other flag, I wrote about sexual abuse.  I had suffered such abuse as an adolescent at the hands of my family physician, but having distanced myself from that memory, I wrote instead out of a passionate defense of foster children, whom I had come to know too often suffered such abuse.

I wrote about sexual abuse so long before the “me-too” movement that no one quite knew what to do with the story that emerged.  Nonetheless, James Cross Giblin, perhaps the bravest editor in the children’s book industry at the time, brought Foster Child into the world.

Clearly, my mother’s deeply held reverence for the days of her childhood impacted me profoundly.  The ways she tried so hard to “protect” me did, too.  Does my ability to remember rise out of a curious mixture of reverence and defiance?

Perhaps.

Or maybe the answer is the same as the one I once received from my partner in response to a very different question.  When I first met her I was astonished to learn that she comes from a family of four daughters, all of them lesbian.  “How do you get statistics like that in one family?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she replied with a casual shrug.  “I guess we’re just lucky.”

And that’s me.  Lucky to have retained the textures of my childhood, the quiet, unpressured days; the grinding powerlessness; the longing for what I couldn’t even name; the humiliations; the soaring joys.

And lucky to have found good use for all I have carried with me from those days!

Going Home

Thomas Wolfe said it. You can’t go home again.

And yet, of course, you can.  It’s just that when you go back, home will have changed.  And, of course, you will have changed, too, so the place may not feel even remotely familiar.

I’ve just been back, though, back to Oglesby, the small town in north-central Illinois where I was born, where I spent my childhood.  A town I left more than sixty years ago.

In one way, of course, I’ve never left, as none of us ever truly leaves that patchwork quilt of early memories behind.  In another, the whole town seems to have happened to someone else.  Was that awkward, lonely girl really me?

Actually, I didn’t grow up in town.  I grew up on the edge of Oglesby next to the dusty, noisy cement mill where my dad was the chemist.  I loved everything about that place.  The trains chuffing and tooting and banging.  The bellowing mill whistle.  The smoke stack puffing out a constant column of white smoke, as beautiful, I thought, as any cloud in the sky.  The deep woods that took up where the mill and the yards surrounding our mill houses left off.

I felt safe in that remote world.  Much safer there than I ever did at the school in town where, surrounded by strangers, I started kindergarten at the tender age of four.

Through the years that followed, few of those strangers became anything like friends.  I was too much younger than my classmates, too shy, too occupied with the world inside my head, too socially oblivious.  I wasn’t set off only by the distance I lived from town, but by coming from a family of outsiders.  My parents had come to Oglesby from foreign places—California and Minnesota—and probably even more damning than that, they navigated social rules awkwardly, too.

I always knew myself to be separate, different, not part of the town.  And oh, how I longed to belong.

It took me many years after I left Oglesby to learn the skills that would give me entrance into a community, and even now I do the social dance only in the quietest ways, one partner at a time.  Sometimes what I have written precedes me into a new group, making a place for me.  And that’s pleasant if those I meet have actually read my work rather than responding to some false idea of publishing glamor.  What I have written represents my truest self.

So when the call came from an enthusiastic Oglesby attorney, wanting me to come back, wanting me, not as a silent visitor, but as myself, the woman I am now, the writer, the speaker, I couldn’t help but wonder.  Does anyone in Oglesby really want to hear me?

I agreed, finally, to a time that was months away, assuming, I suppose, if the date was distant enough it would never really come.

It did come, though.  My gracious daughter drove me to that familiar and yet oh-so-uncomfortable place.  I went with deep trepidation.  The acceptance I have garnered through the years in other communities falls away there.

We drove through the town.  So many of the old places gone.  The old school torn down, a new one in its place.  A new library, too.  The dress shop where I bought my teenage clothes, even my wedding dress, now empty.  Doherty’s Drug Store that I passed every day on my long walk home, empty as well.  (Mrs. Doherty used to give kids two scoops of ice cream for a nickel.  Mr. Doherty gave only one as the sign behind the soda counter said was right.)

Even the mill has gone silent.

I spoke at the school to the usual captive audience.  Nothing remarkable there except that I haven’t visited a school except for my grandchildren’s classrooms for twenty years.  I was interested to see that I could still do it.

Then in the evening I showed up at the library and was surprised to see the seats fill.

I was even more deeply surprised when, just before my presentation, two men came in carrying between them what appeared to be an enormous gift-wrapped picture.  Goodness! I thought.  Where will I put that?

But I needn’t have worried.  When I pulled back the wrapping, what I found wasn’t a picture to be taken home for my wall.  It was a highway sign to be posted at the entrance to the town.

 

I’m usually pretty good with words, but I was speechless!

So, you see, you can go home again.  It’s just that when you get there you may find home isn’t any place you have ever known.

“Marvelous!”

“Marvelous!”  That’s what the editor said.  She was describing my revision of Sunshine, the novel I have been immersed in—bogged down in would probably be a better description—for the last two years and more.

There will be more work to do, of course.  I can often send a picture-book manuscript in clean.  But with a novel of any complexity, if my editor can’t open the door to revisions each step along the way I feel abandoned.  Fearful of presenting myself to the world naked.

Those final rounds of revisions, my last chance to dress my story to meet the reading public, are invaluable.  It isn’t just that it takes only the smallest of slips to catch a reviewer’s eye.  Far more important, small slips can leave readers dissatisfied, even if they may be less able than reviewers to name the cause of their disaffection.

And sometimes, even with a manuscript I’ve been laboring over long and long, it’s not a matter of small slips but of deep insights that evade me.

Another person’s vision can open me to the reason the story chose me in the beginning.

Ten months ago I submitted Sunshine to the editor I most wanted to work with.  It was her first time to see it, and she said, “There is a lot I like about the novel, and I think it has the potential to be a very very powerful read, but it also puzzled me a bit tonally.”  And so I took that puzzlement in hand and waded back in.

And in.

And in.

There is more than one reason why Sunshine has come close to defeating me.  I started with a fun idea, a boy with an imaginary dog.  Not a three-year-old, the age when many children have imaginary friends, but an older boy still immersed in a very solid fantasy.  But having begun with that premise, I then had to answer a crucial question.  Why?  Why has he clung to his imaginary companion for so long?  What need does the little dog fulfill?

The answer that came to me was simple, or at least it seemed so at the time.  His mother abandoned him when he was three, and without being consciously aware, he has used Sunshine to fill in the hole she left.  Missing mothers I understand from the child’s perspective.  Though my own mother was pretty much omnipresent, I experienced another kind of abandonment as a child that I return to again and again in my stories.  But having him reconnect with his mother, a woman who has not just walked away but stayed away, proved far more difficult.  Because this time I had to understand, not just the child, but the mother!

Such a choice is so foreign to my own heart that I had difficulty explaining it to myself . . . except in the most black and white and therefore melodramatic terms.

In this last draft I found my way to the mother in part by making her a writer and letting the pull of the writing be a piece of what took her away.  I came closer also by reducing the weight of the childhood crisis I’d used to justify her choice, allowing her to be less dramatically wounded and thus more complex.

I also started out with an angry boy and ultimately gave up the anger, however justified it might be.  Instead, he is now naively hopeful, determined to remake the connection with his long-lost mother.

I made that deep change after happening upon a film in which a young teen girl was fiercely and constantly angry with her incapacitated mother.  Despite my knowing that anger was the only weapon the girl had against the abandonment of her mother’s illness, by halfway through the film I could no longer bear her petulance.  I turned away from the film and back to Sunshine and found another way for Ben to react.

And so, in a two-character story both characters evolved in profound ways while the story’s action remained essentially the same.  Which made my journey a long one.

Once in a while, I enter a story knowing everything I need to know.  I know it in both head and heart.  When that happens, I move swiftly and the story almost writes itself.

Once in a while.

And then there’s the rest of the time.

I tell myself what I used to tell my students:  It’s the very difficulty of the process that gives me opportunity.  If it were easier to create fiction, if the process were more transparent, the rest of the world would have already produced all the market could bear.

And then where would I be?

LoonSong Again

LoonSong

This is my fourth year to write about, LoonSong, the unique Writers’ Retreat on Elbow Lake in the wilderness of northern Minnesota.

It is coming up again this fall, from Thursday, September 5th, through Monday, September 9th.  And once more, it will be magical.

Or at least it will be magical if it happens.

The lake will be there for certain.  And the singing loons.  And the beach.  And the kayaks waiting for paddlers.  The lovely old lodge will be there and the cabins.  The hushed woods all about.

The question is whether we will be there.

The faculty are in the wings and filled with enthusiasm.  Meg Medina, winner of the 2019 Newbery Award and author of other award-winning young-adult and middle grade novels and picture books.  Elisabeth Partridge, one of the most preeminent nonfiction writers in our field and winner of many awards.  Varian Johnson, author of nine novels, including The Parker Inheritance which was named a 2018 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Honor Book along with many other honors.  Holly West, editor at Felwel & Friends and the YA imprint Swoon Reads.  Brent Taylor, a literary agent at Triada US.  Sarah Aronson, Carol McAfee, Debby Dahl Edwardson and me.

This will be my fourth year to attend and teach at LoonSong, and it has been magical every time.  There are other writers’ workshop/retreats around, of course, but two things make this one unique.

One is the place.  You couldn’t find a more serene and heart-filling location than the edge of a lake, surrounded by forest, a few miles from the Canadian border.  The very air will give you hope from your first breath.

Sunset at LoonSong

The second is size.  Because our facilities have room for only a small group, the entire workshop/retreat could better be billed as a long conversation.  There is no line between attenders and presenters.  We are a wide spectrum, some just beginning, others who have published for a long time.  But we are all writers together.

And once we’re there, we’re all in it together, playing and talking and listening and eating and learning from one another.

LoonSong is sponsored by Vermont College of Fine Arts, and if you’re interested in learning about the VCFA Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults program, there will be opportunity for that.  Some VCFA folks come just to be with other VCFA folks.  But those from VCFA comprise only about a third of our group.  Many from the Hamline MFA program here in Minnesota also attend and we’re grateful for their presence.  And many come with no connection to any MFA program at all, nor is any needed, because LoonSong is most profoundly place to be with other writers.

The work of writing is the most blessed I know.  But it is also deeply isolating.  All of us, whether we’re just wading into the cold water of our first manuscripts or have been writing long enough to sometimes feel a bit weary, need the stimulation and the encouragement and the understanding of other writers from time to time.  It’s what keeps us writing.

LoonSong offers that and so much more!

But I’ll be candid.  I’m not here to say, “Hurry to sign up while we still have a few spots open,” because the truth is we have more than a few spots open.  Sign-ups have been slow this year.

It’s a hard thing to come up with money for a conference.  Conferences are expensive.  They have to be expensive, because everything about making them happen costs big time.

But it’s also financially challenging to put on a conference, and if we don’t get full enrollment we’re going to have to close down this year.  We are nowhere near full enrollment yet.  In fact, last I heard there were still some of those highly prized single rooms available.

If you’re already signed up and want LoonSong to happen, then beat the bushes for friends who might join you.  If you’ve been watching our postings for a long time and thinking, Someday I’m going to do that, then make 2019 that someday.  If you’re hearing about LoonSong for the first time, then explore www.loonsong.org . . . and join us.  We would be so delighted to meet you there.

This gathering of children’s and young-adult writers is too good to miss.  And it is much too good to see go under.

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!