Tag Archives: The Longest Night

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!

Must They Be Funny?

Wwoodpile“Must they be funny?”  It’s what Shonna McNasby asked following my last blog.  And her thoughtful question calls for a response.

Shonna also said, “I am an aspiring author of picture books, and what I write, I’m told, is rather quiet and sometimes sad. Everywhere I look there are hilarious picture books, (which I do love), and I just saw a notice in SCBWI about a publisher who just can’t find enough, and is hosting a competition to find more.

“Of course this bothers me as a writer, but it also bothers me on a basic human level. I think we need books that mirror a complex range of emotions, regardless of age. I hope books about loss, anger, and sadness continue to emerge because we can’t stop needing them, whether they’re on trend or not.”

And yes, of course, she is right.  We do need books that touch a wide range of emotions, every emotion we are capable of feeling, in fact.  That’s why we read stories at any age, to affirm our own humanity, to recognize our most private experience in another.  And young children experience as wide a range of emotions as the rest of us.  In fact, they probably feel more deeply than you and I because they are less well defended against their feelings.

With picture books, however, there are hurdles to be gotten past if we start reaching uncomfortably deeply into the well of human experience.

The first is that most adults want, understandably, to protect children from pain . . . all pain.  Even in the form of story.  This is especially true with very young children.  And picture books always have two audiences, the adult who selects and reads the book and the child who receives it.  Getting sadness, in particular, past the protective adult can be a great challenge.  (One could ask whether we are really protecting children or ourselves, but that’s a matter for another discussion.)

The second is that everyone is having a hard time selling picture books these days.  I’m not talking only about us writers having difficulty selling our manuscripts, but about the publishers, as well, which is the cause of our trouble.  One hears various reasons for the fact that picture books aren’t selling as well as they once did–one of which is, no doubt, that too many are being published, a difficult truth for writers to acknowledge—but we’re told they aren’t.

Publishing is a business.  If businesses don’t make money they don’t survive.

Thus, everyone is looking for the book that will leap off the shelf, that will command instant attention.  And funny does that more easily than anything else.

That doesn’t mean everything else will be left out, but “too quiet” seems to be the code word these days for, “We just can’t count on enough sales to risk this one.” 

One of my favorites of my own picture books is The Longest Night, published by Holiday House.  It is lyrical with stunning illustrations by Ted Lewin.  It is also the epitome of quiet.  It was, as my editor, Grace Maccarone, recently explained to me, a literary success but a commercial failure.  I can’t earn a living on commercial failures any more than publishers can.

What’s the solution?  Well . . . an obvious one is to write funny if you can.

Unfortunately, funny—good funny—is really, really hard to do.

And if you can’t write funny?  Or if you have something to say that simply isn’t funny?  Then the old advice stands.  Write what’s in your heart.  Write what moves you.  Write what you believe will touch a child in a deep and genuine way.  And whether it’s “on trend” or not, some of those manuscripts will slip through and find life as books.

And some of those books may even sell!