“I read because one life isn’t enough, and in the page of a book I can be anybody.”
“your book on my honor is horrible.” Savannah
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!”
When I was a child coming upon adolescence but not quite there yet—the tween years we call that time of life now, but there was no word for it then—I remember wanting more than I had ever wanted anything to have someone listen to me. Not just any someone, but one of that pack of important people, the grownups.
I was keenly aware then, however, that I had no opinions, no information, nothing to say that might interest the folks who ran the world. I knew nothing, and I knew I knew nothing, so before I wanted to speak, I wanted to know. I wanted to have something to say worth listening to.
And that’s the force behind much of my life’s trajectory, the desire to learn, to know, to speak and to be heard.
I remembered that old desire once while giving a keynote before a large hall packed with strangers, adults all. Ah, I thought then. Some dreams do come true!
But from time to time I wonder, is that the force that makes a writer, any writer, every writer, the simple desire to be heard?
I was not particularly listened to when I was a child. I was always too something to be taken seriously in my family. Too young, too emotional, too fanciful, too intense. And so, following my family’s unspoken but unmistakable rules, I emerged into the world as a respectably contained, utterly calm—at least on the surface—woman.
But I broke my family rules by becoming a writer.
It is a mostly innocuous habit, writing. More than a habit, a compulsion. It can be, I suppose, a compulsion that’s not easy for others to live with close up. Not just the time spent off by ourselves tapping out words on a keyboard but the time spent off in our heads discovering more worlds to write or sorting the one we are currently engaged in. (A former partner used to ask me sometimes when we were doing something together and I was more silent than she liked, “Are you writing?”)
From time to time I ask a serious question of myself. Is this really living, this spilling of life onto the page, this sifting my days through words to discern their meaning?
“Yes!” I answer myself. “Yes!” Because surely meaning matters. And not just to me but to those who read my discernments.
The truth, however, beneath that truth is that there is something in me still that wants attention from the grownups. A curious admission since I write mostly for children, but it is the adult response that comes first and, if I’m honest, that’s the one I am primed to watch for.
But then there is another truth. There must be something deeper behind this curious activity, because I know I would write even if no one ever read my words.
I write because that’s the way I breathe.
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.
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.
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.
It’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.