Tag Archives: truth

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.

Great Is Truth, But…

truth“Great is truth, but still greater, from a practical point of view, is silence about truth. By simply not mentioning certain subjects … totalitarian propagandists have influenced opinion much more effectively than they could have done by the most eloquent denunciations.”
Aldous Huxley

To Tell the Truth

Santa ClausLast week I wrote about my beginnings as a children’s writer, what had brought me to the hard truths that often form the core of my stories. But I wrote about only one level of that beginning, my discovery that it was possible to write hard truths, even for a young audience, and to be published. That discovery excited and motivated me and sent me sailing into my first novel.

What I didn’t talk about was why. And there is a very distinct why.

I grew up at a time when children were routinely lied to. And my mother, I might add, was better at lying than most. Her lies weren’t meant to be harmful. She would, I am certain, have been shocked if anyone had suggested she was lying. Rather these mistruths were meant to “protect” us children. By the time I was grown, however, I realized that what we had been protected from was any truth that might create discomfort for the adult having to speak it. And that, probably more than any other single factor, formed the basis for my career as a children’s writer.

I started off with one clear intention … to speak the truth, to always speak the truth, even when that truth was painful. Especially when that truth was painful, because those were the truths I’d been deprived of when I was a child.

For better or for worse, my own children were not so deprived. My daughter did once tell me that I’d done a terrible thing in giving an honest answer to her three-year-old brother’s question about Santa Claus. Peter had asked whether Santa had really tiptoed into his room and put those things in his stocking or whether I had done it. My answering him honestly, she said, was the worst thing I had ever done as a parent. Peter, being two years older, had, of course, shared this information with her as soon as she could understand it, so she never had a chance to play the Santa game. (I figure if that was truly the worst thing I ever did—which I doubt—she got off pretty lightly.)

But the “truth” door I passed through when I answered my son’s question is the same one I use to enter my stories. In the infamous Santa debunking, I responded to a direct question. I wouldn’t have chosen to spoil the Christmas magic for a three-year-old. But I am incapable of lying in answer to a direct question from anybody, especially from a child, and I’m incapable of writing stories that deceive or wriggle around hard truths.

Honesty, for me, is holy. That’s because it wasn’t holy enough to my mother. Here’s an example: As a child, when I asked whether my family doctor didn’t used to have a nurse in his office who was also his wife, my mother said, “No.” The fact was that they had divorced. But my mother’s answer meant that the woman I remembered quite clearly had never existed! Divorce was unconscionable in my mother’s world, and I understand she was protecting me—and herself—against the knowledge that such terrible things could happen. But I was left bewildered and confused, mistrusting my own memory, and eventually when I learned the truth … furious.

That, of course, is not the only example I could give of my mother’s lies, and she wasn’t the only source of the lies that I was subjected to as a child. Nor am I the only child ever lied to. The practice was ubiquitous in my parents’ generation, much of the lying involving a simple and powerful withholding of information.

I’m not sure why I responded as strongly as I did, why I became such a determined truth teller when probably most others of my generation passed through similar experiences with a shrug. Perhaps it is, as I said, because my mother’s lies were a bit more outrageous than most. Or maybe because there is something at my core that I can only describe as sincere. Sincerity is what I’m good at, also sometimes its companion, naiveté. And both require truth telling.

So my stories take on hard topics, and they present them in an honest and straight-forward way. It’s a strength of mine as a writer, at least it’s a strength if the truth is what you want from stories.

Not everyone does.

My Beginnings

A friend of mine has recently decided to read her way through every book I have ever published. I was amazed that she wanted to do it, that anyone would, but, naturally, happy to supply her with reading material. She hasn’t only been making her way through a stack of picture books and novels, however. She does me the even greater favor of commenting on and asking questions about each of the longer works as she finishes it.

The last round of our discussion came down to one fundamental question: Why do you write about such hard topics? Especially for young readers. She wasn’t complaining, just asking.

Foster ChildWhich set me to examining the question myself. Why do I choose to tell the kind of stories I do? The very first novel I wrote, Foster Child (my second to be published and long out of print), was about sexual abuse in the name of Jesus. In the mid 1970’s you couldn’t get much more controversial than that! No doubt it would still be controversial if it were published today.

Despite the fact that “Where do your ideas come from?” is the most common question asked of writers, a question I’ve answered a thousand times in front of a gym full of kids, I found myself pausing when my friend asked. Why am I drawn to such heavy topics for a young audience?

Here’s the story of my beginnings and my journey to those hard topics. When I first began to take my writing seriously, began to sit down to work every day in an organized way expecting to produce something, I applied myself to picture books. I had young children and I had been reading picture books until they were coming out of my ears. And, I’ll admit it with some chagrin now … it looked easy. Until I tried it.

I persisted, though. I traveled back and forth to the public library bringing home armloads of picture books, reading and reading. Surely, I could do that!

But when I sat down at my typewriter—yes, typewriter, it was that long ago—nothing much emerged. I had few ideas. (And if I’d found some viable ideas I wouldn’t have known how to frame them as picture books anyway, because I knew nothing of the technicalities of producing such a thing. But that’s a different topic.)

Gradually, when I visited the library I began moving up the stacks, away from the bins of picture books, and into juvenile novels. I didn’t know contemporary novels for young people. I had grown up in a small town with a very small public library (my school had no library at all), and the books in our house were from my mother’s childhood. So I found contemporary novels for young people exciting. Much had happened since Louisa May Alcott and the Little Prudy series.

Slave DancerFinally, I stumbled upon a shelf set away from the rest labeled “Newbery Award.” I didn’t even know what the Newbery Award was, but somebody liked those books, so I took several home. And that’s when I fell in love. The two books that moved me the most deeply on that first round of reading were Paula Fox’s The Slave Dancer and William Armstrong’s Sounder.

I came away from that reading knowing what I needed to know. I could write about anything that might touch a child’s life, and if I wrote honestly and well it could be published for young people. It could even win awards! That was a revelation!

And with that understanding, I knew what I was meant to write. I would write what moved me, what would move my readers.

Now, I’ll admit that’s only a partial answer to my friend’s question. I might, after all, have fallen in love with humor or folk tales, high fantasy or nonfiction. But I didn’t. I fell in love with serious, realistic stories that made me feel.

Why? The answer to that one requires digging into a whole new layer of my psyche (or a whole new blog). But for this week, I’ll give it a one-sentence answer:

I found myself on a mission to be a truth teller.

The Gift of Truth

9_3liesMy mother lied to me when I was a child.

Now, I don’t want to be hard on her. After all, I grew up at a time when lying to children was routine. Any topic that embarrassed adults was deemed inappropriate for kids—sex, bodily functions, adult foibles of all kinds, finances, birth, death . . . sex.

My mother, however, was probably better at lying than most. She not only lied with her silence on all those terrible topics. When asked a direct question she lied to my face.

An example: Not a word was spoken in front of us kids about my aunt Carol’s divorce. When it occurred to me one day to ask, “Didn’t there used to be an Uncle Kenny?” my mother said simply, flatly, “No.” And I was left to struggle with my memories of the man who had fathered my little cousin.

The result? Years later when I began writing novels for young people, I had one overarching goal. To be a truth teller. No matter what topic I took on, I wrote it straight. For instance, in 1977 I published a novel for middle graders that dealt with sexual molestation in the name of Jesus. You’d better believe I had a reputation in my field, and I was proud of it.

I was not my mother. I could be counted on never to lie to my readers, either by my silence or by my words.

Life never happens in a straight line, though. About fifteen years into my career, a change came along, a deep one. I left my marriage of 28 years and formed a relationship with a woman. I was entirely open about who I’d discovered myself to be. I was open with my young-adult children, with my elderly mother, with my husband’s congregation as I left the marriage (he was a pastor), with my writing students, with my friends. Some accepted this new knowledge of me, some turned away, but being open was the only way I knew to live, so I hid nothing, except . . .

Have I mentioned that I am a children’s writer?

Have I mentioned that this all happened twenty five years ago?

Have I mentioned that a librarian in California said to me one day, speaking of a well-known picture-book writer, “We know he died of AIDS, but we don’t say it, because his books would stop selling instantly.”

Have I mentioned that publishing and speaking with a bit of teaching on the side is my only source of income?

Have I mentioned that I like to eat?

bk_honorJust as I was turning this corner in my life, my career was blossoming. My novel, On My Honor, won a Newbery Honor Award. I was traveling all over the country, speaking to young people and to adults. I was still writing about hard topics, topics I cared about passionately. I was still a truth teller, except for this one small matter of who I was . . . and . . . well, I had to survive, didn’t I?

Then one day the inevitable happened. I looked at myself and asked, What kind of a truth-teller are you? You live in a world where young people are dying—literally killing themselves—for lack of support and information about their sexuality. They are dying because no one is willing to tell them that they can be who they are and still live a happy, productive life.

You, I reminded myself, are in a unique position to reach them. And you are choosing silence.

What else could I do? I had to come out professionally, but I needed to do it quietly, because I am at my core a quiet person, and I needed to do it in a way that would be useful rather than sensational.

My first thought was to go to other gay and lesbian children’s writers—there are lots of us floating around out here—and say, “Come out with me. Let’s put together a book of our own coming-out stories so gay and lesbian kids will know we’re here.” But before I’d extended the first invitation I realized I couldn’t do that. The decision to come out is always personal, and at that time it would have been more than personal. Coming out could have been career destroying for anyone writing for young people. A person can choose that kind of risk, but no one can ask it of anyone else.

9_3amIblueAnd so I came up with a different approach. First I found a courageous editor who accepted my plan. Then I approached other writers in my field without regard to their sexuality. I chose people whose names would be noticed and whose work would be fine—I wanted librarians to feel obligated to put the book on their shelves—and asked them each to write a short story for me. My only requirement was that the story center on a gay or lesbian character. The collection came to be called Am I Blue? Coming Out from the Silence, and it was published almost 20 years ago to more acclaim than I could have dreamed.

And that would be the end of this story except for one thing. I was working with two editors at the time. One happened to be a gay man, the other a lesbian. When they learned what I was doing, the man supported me—in fact, he contributed a story to my collection—but the woman was very concerned. She didn’t say it, but I knew she was afraid she would never be able to publish me again.

When Am I Blue? was almost completed the editor who had been my supporter asked a question: Are you going to come out in your personal essay attached to the short story you’ve contributed to the collection? I told him I was, that coming out was, for me, part of the point.

9_3QHis support vanished.

I was thrown off balance. Should I revise my essay? I still had time, but just barely. People were going to guess anyway because my name was on the collection as the editor. Was it better to leave them guessing?

Then my other editor, the one who had never wanted me to do the book, asked the same question. I gave her the same answer and held my breath, waiting for the inevitable response. What I got was silence, a long silence. Then she sighed and said something I’ve never forgotten. “Well,” she said, “maybe for every door that’s closed another will be opened.”

That, I said to myself, sounds exactly right, and I let my essay stand.

In case you haven’t guessed, I am still eating.

I’m proud that Am I Blue? Coming Out from the Silence has played its small part in the revolution we’ve all witnessed these past 20 years. I’m grateful for the letters I’ve received telling me how those stories changed lives, even saved lives. And I’m delighted to say that last year I contributed an essay to a book called The Letter Q. The book is comprised of essays from 64 different gay and lesbian writers for young people, all of us acknowledging our sexuality and offering advice to our younger, less certain selves.

Sometimes it doesn’t matter what the impulse is that sends us on our journeys. It matters only that we set off, taking each step with as much conviction and self-honesty as we can muster.

Who knew that my mother’s well-intentioned lies would give me the gift of truth?