Tag Archives: children’s books

Grooming Our Own Replacements

Norma Fox Mazer and I were good friends. We taught together at Vermont College of Fine Arts back when our MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at VCFA was very new, when it was the only program of its kind. And I still remember the time when Norma stopped me in the hall of our ancient stone dormitory and said, “You realize we’re grooming our own replacements.”

I laughed. We both laughed. But, of course, it was true. By passing on the skills we had gathered over so many years we were making certain that those coming up behind us would have the acuity required to step over us one day.

Now Norma who, along with her husband, Harry, practically created the young-adult field, is gone, but that truth she and I once laughed over continues to play out all around me every day.

I saw it again last month when I attended the Minnesota Book Awards ceremony.

My verse novel, Little Cat’s Luck, was one of four books selected in the middle grade category.  I attended the ceremony with no expectation of my lucky little cat’s winning, and she didn’t.  However, the amazing non-fiction book I was certain would be chosen over mine, Sachiko by Caren Stelson, didn’t win, either. Instead, a beautifully written fantasy, The Secret of Dreadwillow Curse by Brian Farrey took the award.

(If you want evidence of the idiosyncratic nature of any kind of awards selection process, you have only to note that the 2017 Newbery Award novel, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, is also by a Minnesota writer, Kelly Barnhill, and that book didn’t make the list of four. But that’s another topic entirely.)

I had gathered a group of friends to attend with me, not needing an expectation of winning to enjoy the elaborate evening orchestrated by the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library. I invited my friends and I showed up prepared for the great pleasure of spending an entire evening celebrating Minnesota writers. But when I got there something more awaited me.

I found to my delight that I was sitting at the autograph table next to Abby Cooper, a young woman with whom I have a unique connection. A couple of years ago Abby sent me an e-mail saying, “You may not remember me, but when I was in the fifth grade, you spoke at a young-authors’ conference that I attended.” And, I’ll admit it, I laughed. Not derisively, but quite spontaneously. There had been so many young-authors’ conferences, so many fifth graders. No, I did not remember Abby.

Credit: David Cooper

But then she went on to tell me that she had approached me at the end of my session to ask if she could send me a story she was working on. I gave her my address, received her story, and responded with a critique. For a time we wrote back and forth, discussing her work, and then she moved on as fifty graders inevitably do.

Over the years I have had a similar correspondence with quite a few young writers, all of them bright, enthusiastic, passionate. I’ve accompanied each of them for a short distance, and then they’ve moved on. So the truth was, even with this new information, my memory of Abby was vague at best. Still, I was delighted to find out that she was writing to say that her first novel, Sticks and Stones, had been accepted for publication by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Sticks and Stones received a starred review from Kirkus, and now it was one of the four finalists in the middle-grade category for a Minnesota Book Award.

I sat down at the autograph table next to the still very young Abby—she was nearly vibrating in her chair in her excitement—and said quietly, just to myself, “You realize, we’re grooming our own replacements.”

But being there with Abby made the evening for me. I’ve had enough books published, enough awards, enough opportunities to sit in a large, noisy room autographing. But I’ll never have enough of watching young people rise up behind me … even when their rise suggests it’s time for me to move on.

So congratulations, Abby Cooper. I wish you well. May you replace me with vigor and joy. And may you take this good work we love and make it new for a world that is now yours!

Point of Re-Entry

Two weeks ago I wrote about a picture book I have been working on for months, both researching and writing.

Since it’s not a text that has come easily I have shown it repeatedly to three of my fellow writers as I worked.  They each responded to my multiple requests with thoughtful and candid critiques.  “This is what’s working.  This is what isn’t.”

My friends were not consulting one another and didn’t always agree about what they saw, what they wanted from the piece, but that didn’t matter.  In fact, the places where one loved something that another thought I should take out became easy reentry points for me.  Clearly I had to find my own place to stand in what was, after all, my manuscript.

Finally I felt close enough to completion to show the manuscript to my agent.  But that was the best I could say.  It was close.

While he and I were discussing strategy, a delayed comment came in from one of my critics.  For her, the new ending didn’t work.  If the ending of any piece doesn’t work, the whole thing collapses.  But that is especially true for the delicate construction of a picture book

“Put it on hold,” I told my agent, and I went back to considering the ending.  That it worked for only two out of three readers wasn’t good enough.

I went back to the ending and back to pounding my head against my keyboard . . . or at least that’s what I felt like doing.

And then this morning on a walk with my dog—that’s when I often get my best ideas, when walking my dog—I remembered something I hadn’t thought about for a long time.  When I first began writing, I had no critics to turn to for help.  I had never met an editor, and I knew no other writers either.  I knew no one even interested in writing for children.  So needing some perspective beyond my own too-close one, I turned to Mary, a friend and a longtime teacher.

From time to time, Mary would stop by my house on her way home from school, settle on the couch in my study and read the pages I handed her.  I sat a few feet away, watching, waiting, holding my breath. Mary wasn’t an experienced critic, but she was a thoughtful reader and willing.  She would read and read until suddenly she would look up and said, “I don’t know why exactly, but at this point I’m beginning to itch.”

I would take the manuscript back, look to see where she was, and ponder.  After some time, I began to realize that Mary’s “itch” developed because my story was getting too talky, too teachy.  I soon discovered, too, however, that the problem didn’t begin at the point her discomfort surfaced.  It began earlier and became cumulative.  So instead of fixing the text where she named the problem, I learned to go back to find the place where the problem began and to rework from that point on.

“Ah!” I said to myself on this morning’s dog walk, suddenly remembering Mary and those long-ago reading sessions.  “Maybe it’s not just the ending.  Maybe the problem begins farther back.”

So here I am, ready to revise again, this time examining language that feels so solidly in place as to be untouchable, looking for a point of reentry, the point of reentry where the direction for my ending is set.

Credit: kakisky | morguefile.com

This is where I allow myself a bit of a sigh.  Which is what you’re reading today, a bit of  a sigh.

When I’m through sighing I’ll go back to work.

Only a Picture Book

It’s only a picture book, but years passed between getting the idea and finally knowing how I wanted to tackle it.  Once I’d figured out an approach, it took months to research. Not months of constant work, but on and off months of searching, digesting, searching again.  And though coming in at just over 400 words, the manuscript took weeks to write.

The Stuff of Stars is a creation myth based in science.  And next year it will be published by Candlewick with breath-taking illustrations by Ekua Holmes.

Credit: NASA

During the months of research and writing, my enchantment with my topic grew.  How could I not be awed by the vastness of space, by the power of the forces that brought our planet into being, by the serendipity that allows this piece of rock we call home to sustain life?  So awed that, though the manuscript has long been out of my hands, the topic has never quite left.

Once more I find myself searching, digesting, searching again.

Once more I sat down to write, concentrating this time on Earth, our Earth.  Not to write a sermon about how we aren’t taking care of it.  We have too many sermons masquerading as children’s books, sermons bent on making those who follow us responsible for the world they are inheriting.  Rather I wanted to write a hymn, something that would live in the veins of my young readers.  A hymn to honor a world that is precious beyond all singing of it.

The first step, return to my research.  I am not an astronomer or a geologist, which means I have to read and read and read before I can comprehend science well enough to make a few very basic statements.  When I’m describing the way the first land mass appeared, can I use the word rose?

And then, once more, I sat down to write.  Slowly, haltingly, turning science into poetry while remaining true to the science.

My concept began to take shape, but not quite the shape I wanted.  Something was wrong with the ending, something I couldn’t name. I showed my manuscript to three fellow writers.  They each had thoughtful comments.  Sometimes what one loved another hated, but that was fine.  I drew on their insights while the text remained mine.

I kept drawing closer to what I wanted the piece to be.  But still . . .   But still . . .  Something didn’t work.  Something none of us could name.

Finally, I showed the text to my daughter.  I don’t usually share my writing with her until it is finished.  She is not a writer.  In fact, having grown up watching her mother peck away constantly at a keyboard to little visible result, she long ago decided that being a writer must be the worst career in the world.  She is, however, a reader, and she is direct and honest.

She read my text once and said what the others had said before her.  “I love it!”  Then she said something more. “But it’s two separate books.”

Sometimes criticism that takes time to settle.  You have to carry it in a pocket—a pocket very close to your heart—for a long time before you know whether to make the insight yours.  Sometimes it strikes like a lightning bolt.

Beth-Alison’s comment was of the lightning bolt variety.

So today I’m back at the text again.  And slowly, slowly I am finding my way forward.  I believe I’ll find the shape this time.

It’s only a picture book.  When it’s done it will be around 400 words. But the process of capturing those 400 words . . . ah!  That’s both joy and despair.

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?

Sequel, Anyone?

Have you ever thought of taking the book Runt and making it a young adult series? Or at least adding a second book? I fell in love with this book as a young girl and here I am at 21 and I still adore this book and wonder why a sequel was not written. If you would be open to it I would love to send you some of the ideas I had about turning it into a 2 part collection. I myself am a published poet. Please let me know your opinions.

LK

RuntIt’s not an unusual query except for one thing.  That question typically comes from young readers who have just now discovered my novel Runt and are looking for a sequel. The fact that L is 21, read Runt as a child and is still thinking about my story, still wanting more of my characters, wanting even to contribute ideas for that more, quite captures my heart. And it brings me to an explanation.

I had once intended to write a sequel for Runt, but I never did.

The story of Runt is the story of a wolf pup, the last of a litter born to a pair of wild parents in the wilderness.  The last born and, as the title reveals, the runt.  The other pups are all given names that have to do with their strongest skill, their most important means of serving the pack—Leader, Sniffer, Runner, Thinker. But this last one, who looks exactly like his dark father, is so undersized that he has little chance of surviving, let alone serving the pack. Or so his father assumes when he sees him. And thus the name Runt.

As the story plays out, Runt does survive. He struggles to prove himself to his father and fails, again and again, but by the end he finds his voice, calls his hungry family to a feast, and earns the name Singer. A perfect set up for a sequel. Even the title of the story was obvious, Singer.

I knew how my second story would play out. Singer would begin with the young wolf leaving his family, striking out on his own and would end with his finding a mate and with the birth of his first pups.

I began by rereading Runt to find out, first, if I still liked it, if I wanted to return to the world of that story. I did. The setting, the characters, the possibilities for more story all came alive in my mind. So I began to research the lives of wolves again, to place myself solidly in their world.  And as I deepened the knowledge I had gathered to write the first book, something began to happen.

When I wrote Runt, I was emulating an author I deeply admired when I was a child, Felix Salten, who wrote books steeped in the natural world, such as Bambi, books in which the animal characters remained true to their real natures except for one thing. He gave them the power of human speech. And so that is what I did. I remained completely true to the reality of wolves in the natural world except for giving them the power of human speech.

Returning to my research, though, I began to notice something I had not noticed—perhaps chosen not to notice?—when I was preparing to write the first book. We understand the real communication of wolves among themselves only very partially, but we do know it is intricate, nuanced, complex, highly refined. To give them human speech, however much I had needed to do so for the purposes of my story, doesn’t enhance their reality. It diminishes it.

Ultimately, I decided that while I was still very fond of Runt, certainly didn’t feel I needed to apologize for anything about it, including its talking animals, I had grown to respect wolves too deeply to invest them with speech again, at least not while I was also trying to demonstrate their reality.

And so what probably would have been a successful sequel was shelved before it ever reached paper.

Does this decision matter now, except perhaps to L and the other occasional readers who long for another story about my gutsy but challenged wolf pup. Not very much. Except, perhaps, as an example of the deepening questions we writers must ask ourselves every time we set out to tell a story.

What implicit assumptions lie beneath our stories? Who or what might be helped by those assumptions? Who or what might they hurt?

It’s the question we have come belatedly to ask when we storytellers reach into human cultures not our own. It’s one we need to hold up about our natural world, too.