Tag Archives: children’s literature

The Stuff of Opinion

I’ve never paid much attention to reviews of my books on Amazon.com or GoodReads, mostly because there is too much else flowing off the Internet that demands my attention.  I just keep trying, as most of us do, to keep the Internet’s largess from swallowing me whole.

I suppose I’ve chosen not to dip into those reviews also to avoid the frustration of reading what can sometimes seem ill-informed or badly written reflections on my books.  I try—don’t we all try?—not to be a snob, but I’ll admit that when a review is badly written or based on what I would judge to be a false premise, even if it’s a review in a professional publication, I can’t give it much weight, either for or against my book.

The Stuff of Stars

As of this writing, my new picture book, The Stuff of Stars, has received starred reviews in Kirkus, Booklist, Publisher’s Weekly and School Library Journal, all publications that set the standards in my literary world.  And every one of these starred reviews was itself well written, which warmed my ever-so-slightly snobbish heart.

And as of this writing, it has also had numerous reviews on Amazon.com and GoodReads.  And this time I did peek.  Most of those reviews have been positive, well written and satisfying to this author.  But weighing in, too, are those who say things like “I’m not typically interested in poetry but I could see the appeal if you’re into that sort of thing.”

I respect the “I’m-not-into-poetry” writer, though I would say that the text of The Stuff of Stars is lyrical prose rather than poetry.  But we all have a right to our preferences.  I’m not usually interested in romance or mystery or science fiction, though I don’t choose to review those genres, either.

Of far more interest to me, though, are the reviewers who object to the content of my book because it doesn’t represent the reader’s own beliefs.  I knew, of course, that writing about the Big Bang would offend some, though I find it difficult to imagine how anyone’s “beliefs” can stand against science.  Or why they must.

Ekua Holmes illustration from The Stuff of Stars

illustration from The Stuff of Stars, copyright Ekua Holmes (Candlewick Press)

One reader gave The Stuff of Stars a four-star ranking despite saying, “I can appreciate this book even if it’s not my belief.”  Which is generosity, indeed.

Another gave it one star and said, “If all we are is stardust what is the point of life?”

And oh, how I would l love to have that conversation!

It reminds me of a comment I received back when The Stuff of Stars was still growing and changing, a comment from someone who is one of my most important touchstones while a picture book is in its manuscript phase.  She said emphatically, “Get all that death out of there!”

And I thought, but didn’t say, “No!”  (There is seldom any point in saying “no” to a helpful critic.  I just listen, then do what I see needs to be done.)

Because death is the point.  Life comes out of death.  Out of the deaths of stars.  Out of the deaths of our ancestors.  If death—and the incredible riches that grow out of death—were not the foundation of our universe, we would not, could not exist.

It’s not a message that suits this American death-denying culture, but as my own time grows shorter, it’s one I hold close.  And such contrary views make me long for more open conversation.

Does the scientific view of the origins of the universe preclude anyone’s idea of a creating God?  If it does, then perhaps that God is too small.

Does our culture’s deep abhorrence of death keep death from nurturing us, making our lives possible?   We are fortunate, because it does not.

What is of great interest to me is that if an idea is dressed in lyrical language and set against a backdrop of exquisite art and presented to very young children, it can sometimes rise above our deepest prejudices.

What a blessing that is!

 

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!

Positive Expectation

A writer’s career, more than any other career I know or can imagine, is dependent on our having a friendly relationship with our own brains.

Sometimes in my life as a writer that friendly relationship is just there.  It requires neither thought nor effort.  The project I am working on itself creates that friendship.  The work is a gift I return to day after day with full energy.

That kind of experience is, I presume, what is referred to as being “in the zone.”

Then there are other times, other projects, that I struggle with from the first paragraph.  Books where I start and stop, start and stop, where I find myself reimagining and starting over at the point I expected to be done.

“Why,” I ask, in the midst of this kind of muddle, “can’t I just write the blasted thing?  What’s standing in my way?”

Photo by Xenia Bogarova on Unsplash

I have always avoided the term “writer’s block.”  It seems an easy excuse to quit trying.  But I have come to understand something.  The what that is standing in my way when my work falters is always, always me!

In fact, it’s my own brain and the unbidden, often barely noticed conversation I’m having with myself.

These days that one-sided conversation goes something like this:

“Marion, can’t you see?  You’re old.  You’re losing it.  Do you remember how you used to be able to hold an idea, with all its complexity, in your mind from the beginning of a long work to the end?  Now you can’t even remember that inspired idea you came up with yesterday!  And if you bothered to take notes when the idea came, you’ve probably lost your notes.”

That kind of self-talk, I’ve discovered, is powerful.  Really, really powerful.  And when I get caught into it, guess what?  My time at the keyboard turns into a struggle.

Awhile back I sailed into a new novel without quite sorting everything I needed to know about my story’s foundation.  “It will come,” I told myself.  “After all, I’ve been doing this for a long time.  I know what I’m doing.”

(That’s another kind of self-talk entirely.  Too much confidence based on assumptions I know better than.)

And some of it did come.  But some of the story’s foundation remained elusive.  All the way through my work, it remained elusive.

I am fortunate to have an editor interested enough in my work to read this almost novel and respond with, “I think it has the potential to be a very very powerful read, but it also puzzled me a bit . . .”

Then she spelled out her puzzlement.

And I sighed, knew she was entirely right, spent a few minutes feeling sorry for myself—and very, very old—and then said to my brain, “Okay.  Time to go to work.  Time to do what you told yourself you didn’t have to do.”

And I have gone to work.  And I can do it.  New ideas to resolve the puzzlement are flowing.

All inside my head still.  Inside my enthusiastic brain.

But the work will begin to hit the page tomorrow.

New ideas, new words will come out of this old brain of mine as long as I feed it the right kind of food.  And the right kind of food is positive expectation.

“Okay, Marion.  You know how to do this.  In fact, you’ve been doing it for a long time.  Now sit down and, without trying to skip over any steps, use what you know!”

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.

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