What I’m Reading: The Third Mushroom

Posted October 18th, 2018 by Candice

I’m a huge fan of Jennifer L. Holm’s books.  I’ve taught her Newbery Honor historical middle grade, Turtle in Paradise, in my writing classes.  And The Fourteenth Goldfish will be a mentor text in my week-long middle grade writing intensive (next summer, Hollins University).  I loved the idea of a scientist grandfather who finds the secret of turning back the clock.  He lands in Ellie’s life as a nerdy teenager with a powerful discovery.  Suppose everyone could enjoy the fountain of youth?

I read the sequel, The Third Mushrom, twice: once, for enjoyment (it doesn’t disappoint as a sequel), and again to examine Holm’s amazing plot threads.  Grandpa Melvin has been gone since the end of the previous book, but lands back in Ellie’s life.  He’s a bit older now, going through “the Puberty,” to his everlasting disgust.  Imagine if we all had to go through that twice!

Ellie hasn’t been standing still during Grandpa Melvin’s.  She’s older, too, with a new stepfather, a Goth best friend, Raj, and her own interest in science.  Grandpa Melvin is now in her school (he can drive, but he’s too young to get a license or a job or an apartment—turning back the isn’t all it seems) and is mightily bored.  After all, he has two PhDs.  Middle school doesn’t cut it.  But he and Ellie team up for a science fair project involving fruit flies and something strange Melvin found while he was traveling.

Middle school life as portrayed by Ellie, who isn’t sure if she can be friends with her old best friend since kindergarten, Brianna, or if her new best friend could also be her boyfriend, has the genuine up-and-down feelings.  Grandpa Melvin has all the traits of a fourteen-year-old boy (dirty laundry, sleeping late), along with his old-man grouchiness.  Dialog is brisk and funny.

Holm’s masterfully twines several plot lines: the new best-friend-could-also-be-boyfriend Raj, former best friend Brianna, Jonas the cat’s mysterious new cat friend, the new vegetarian stepfather, Ellie’s continued interest in science, the widowed librarian her grandfather has a crush on, along with Grandpa (“I have two PhDs”) Melvin’s scientific anecdotes about penicillin, the microscope, comets, and taxonomy.

There is much to chew on in this book:  the importance of science, the relationships between Ellie and her friends, and Ellie and her family.  Underneath the humor and middle school angst is this valuable nugget, revealed when Ellie and her grandfather are talking about the death of the grandmother who died of cancer before Ellie was born:  no matter how much we know, no matter how many advances we make in science, we cannot always alter the outcome.  Grandpa’s two PhDs could not help him save his wife.

If you’ve read The Fourteenth Goldfish, you’ll love the sequel.  If you haven’t read it, read it first, then savor the sequel.

The Third Mushroom, Jennifer L. Holm (Random House, 2018)

Daniel Boone Days

Posted October 9th, 2018 by Candice

This blog has been sadly neglected.  Too much teaching, too much writing, too much—well, ignoring the blog!  In the past, my blog has been a place for me to write photo essays.  My monthly column at Bookology Magazine is home for my children’s literature essays.  And I contribute articles on the writing process to Children’s Book Insider.

So, I decided to revive my blog, make it simpler by posting on three subjects:  What I’m Writing, What I’m Reading, and Where I’ve Been.  In all the years I’ve kept a blog, I’ve never discussed what I’m working on, or books I’ve read.  Time for a change!

I’m starting off with Where I’ve Been.  Last Saturday I was part of Daniel Boone Days at Andora Farm in Culpeper, Virginia.  (My husband says I get asked to the weirdest events.)  My connection to Daniel Boone?  I wrote a children’s biography more than ten years ago.  I brought books to sell and was the featured speaker at the evening banquet (outdoors, under ancient black walnut trees, with many giant mosquitoes).

The Friday night before Saturday, I plowed through Robert Morgan’s 500-page biography, Boone.  Morgan’s excellent book is more recent than the sources I used in mine.  Saturday morning, I wrote my speech.  Morgan’s book, combined with the political events of the past weeks, gave me my theme: heroes.  Can we still look at people like Daniel Boone and George Washington and, yes, Robert E. Lee (I wrote biographies on them all) as heroes?  Morgan pointed out that people from the past often hover between biography and legend.  We can’t know everything about larger than life people and we never will.

I spent the entire day at Andora Farm, where Daniel Boone once raised children, picked tobacco, and gazed at the beckoning western mountains.  I talked to mountain men reenactors, a local historian, a quilter, and cooks who made delicious chili and griddle cakes in a Dutch oven.  But mostly I watched the kids.  They ran from the blacksmith to the candle-dipper to the mule.  I rode the hayrick with them to the encampment.  I watched them wade through a stream—shoes, socks, and all—and get wonderfully wet and dirty.

I hope they went home, too fired up about the “olden times” to fiddle with social media or computer games.  I hope they slept soundly that night after being outside all day, accompanied by the past, nature, and their imaginations.  I know I did.

 

Joyful Writing Places

Posted July 31st, 2018 by Candice

A recent blog post by children’s author and friend Claudia Mills titled “Can the Joy of Time Away from Home Inspire Joy upon Returning?” made me want to write about the same topic.  Claudia and I both taught at Hollins University.  Mornings, we walked the “campus loop.”  Even talking ninety to the minute, we always admired the beauty around us.

This summer I was eager to leave home for six weeks.  I was tired of cats, laundry, cooking, dishes, errands, cleaning, and yard work, while working a full day.  The week that I packed, cleaned the house extra-good (an exercise in futility), and stocked supplies, still putting in eight hours, I was so irritable (okay, there’s another word for what I was) that everyone, even the cats, was glad to see the back of me.

My apartment at Barbee House waited for me on campus.  I decorated with my favorite things, set up my office, and settled in.  Each morning I got up, made my single bed, put on exercise clothes, and walked out into birdsong.  Deer, rabbits, squirrels, groundhogs, muskrats, and terrapins shared their space with me.  I loved Claudia’s company when she was on campus, and my friends’, but I loved solitude the most.  My mind quieted.  I felt centered.  I didn’t have to answer to anyone or take care of anyone but myself.

Claudia wrote how happy she was at Hollins because she was around people who do what we do—write and discuss children’s books.  We both experienced increased productivity.  Is this what it takes to be a writer?  To hang around like-minded people?  To walk in nature?  To have someone else cook for us?  Somehow a home office doesn’t measure up to a Hollins summer, away from responsibilities.

As the weeks went on, I worried about re-entry back home.  Yet I wasn’t completely satisfied at Hollins, either.  Institutionalization set in.  Meals at 8:00, 12:00, and 5:00 seemed a luxury, though I wearied of broccoli and cabbage and quinoa (the dining hall was determined to keep us bloated).  Too much talking and too much drama was distracting.

Like Claudia, I also wanted to find Hollins at home.  When I came back last summer, I decided to spend one day a week at the University of Mary Washington, a tree-shaded campus only a few miles away.  I bought a new backpack, lunch bag, and a light-weight laptop.  The library at UMW isn’t pretty.  Windows look out on parking lots. Carrels were packed with undergrads who snuffled and coughed until I wanted to yell, “Doesn’t anybody have a Kleenex?”  The day I chose often coincided with fall break or library inventory.  UMW did not become my joyful writing place away from home.

Coffee shops are annoying, or else I find myself eavesdropping instead of writing.  Public libraries are no longer quiet.  What I want is Thoreau’s cabin.  Walden opens, “When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods . . . ”

For ten years I had a Walden-like haven, a bed-and-breakfast on the Potomac River, forty minutes from my house, close enough so I could run home in an emergency, far enough it seemed another world.  At Bell House, once owned by Alexander Graham Bell, I had the top floor: a bedroom, a library, and two widow’s walks.  Anne Bolin, the smart, funny innkeeper, fed me decadent breakfasts.  I stayed there seven days and seven nights, with a goal of ten pages before supper.  Long walks on the deserted beach, evenings rocking on the porch with Anne, nights listening to the lappeting of the river outside my open windows . . . I thought I’d have that place forever.

But last year Anne died suddenly.  You could have heard my heart break on five continents.  Anne had become a dear friend, a wise confidante, a trusted reader of my work.  The yellow house filled with antiques was sold.  My joyful place vanished.

Writing is a selfish profession.  It makes demands on the writer and on everyone around the writer.  I’m always conscious of my working time, always protective of it.  Yet I know how extraordinarily lucky I’ve been, doing what I love for nearly forty years.  When I went to Hollins thirteen straight summers, my husband took up the slack.  He managed the house, did laundry, cooked, watched for Japanese beetles in my roses, gave the cats umpteen meals, changed litter boxes, all while working at his job.

When Thoreau moved to his cabin in the woods, he had no one to answer to and no one to take care of but himself.  As much as I prize my solitude, I wouldn’t trade my family or my house for a cabin on Walden Pond.

When Thoreau left Walden, I’m pretty sure he didn’t have a “Welcome Home” balloon, flowers, and a sweet card waiting for him at home.

 

 

 

 

 

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Behind the Sign

Posted March 15th, 2018 by Candice

I came down with the flu.  After weeks of dragging myself to the computer, I finally listened to the doctor and let myself be sick.  One afternoon I pulled out my old journals.  I haven’t kept a journal in the last few years, instead a planner dictates my days.  My composition notebooks are a mishmash of thoughts, memories, observations, scribblings on books in progress, and notes from writer’s conferences.  I’ve never been a dedicated diary keeper, but carrying around a handmade journal felt less like “being a writer” and more like staying in touch with the world.

Back then, I didn’t frequent Starbucks or museums or university libraries.  My observations were made in diners where the first course for the special is cole slaw with Saltines, in general stores that carry weekly newspapers reporting a man was shot and became dead, and along back roads where people live in abandoned gas stations.  I captured scenes like this:

In Goodwill today, a mother and daughter came in talking sixty to the minute.  Naturally I eavesdropped.  Mother: Look, they got Dale Earnhart glasses.  Daughter: No, I seen ‘em before.  I remembered shopping trips with my mother and sister, how we’d “find” stuff for each other.  

 The daughter was ahead of me in the check-out line.  One of her items, a NASCAR throw, wasn’t priced.  Her mother—a large woman in an ill-fitting dress—squeezed past me to stand behind her daughter. “Pardon me, sweetie,” she said.  The clerk allowed the NASCAR throw was $14.99.  Too much, the daughter said and paid for her other things. 

 Her mother set down two glasses, the Dale Earnhart ones.  She pulled two dollars folded into tiny squares from her wallet.  I wondered if she purchased the Earnhart glasses for her daughter, knowing she wanted them but didn’t have enough money.  She thanked me again for letting her cut in front.  The women talked all the way out the door.  I wondered where they were headed next.  I longed to go with them. 

I know families like that.  They’re everywhere, but most of us living our busy, forward-focused lives don’t notice the margin-dwellers.  I see them because I once existed on the periphery.  Deep inside, I still do.  People at the ragged edge will give you their time and anything else, even if they can’t spare it.  When they speak, in what Anne Tyler calls “pure metaphor,” I come home.

Reading my journals made me wonder where I’ve been lately and why my recent work feels so . . . safe.  I was once on track to tell the stories of kids who have fallen through the cracks.  Not in a poor-me-we-live-in-a-trailer-and-Daddy-chews-Red-Man way, but with dignity and even humor.  After several failed attempts, I quit because I knew the stories I wanted to write would hardly be a top pick in an editor’s inbox.

Oct. 3, 2014:  Some days—weeks—it feels as if I haven’t written a word. Not my words. I’m reminded how much I want to say, how little time I have to do it.

So I stopped keeping a journal.  Stopped driving down back roads to get lost on purpose.  Worse, I faced forward and ignored the edges where the lovely, important things are.

I found advice from Jack Gantos’s opening speech at the 2014 SCBWI Mid-winter conference.  The slide on the screen showed the cover of his Newbery award-winner, Dead End in Norvelt, with the title written on a road sign and a boy standing behind it.  Feb. 22: “Always go behind the sign,” Gantos said. “It’s where the real stories are.”  I already do that.

But then I quit.

When I finished reading, I stacked the notebooks, reluctant to put them back on the dusty shelf.  If I did, I’d bury a treasure trove of stories, sketches, places, names, scenes, and rare glimpses of my own true self.  I moved them to the bedroom to dip into, hoping my dreams will urge me to record once more the soft cadence of forgotten voices.

I’m the only one standing in the way.  No one will beg me to tell the stories I’ve already shot and declared dead without writing a syllable, hearing an editor say, No, I seen this before.  It’s up to me to find the edges, to unfold the tiny, tight squares of my confidence.  To get lost on purpose and slip behind the sign.  To see what I’m really part of.

 

 

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Poetry from Stones

Posted February 10th, 2018 by Candice

Outside my window right now: bare trees, gray sky, a brown bird.  No, let’s try again.  Outside my window, the leafless sweetgum shows a condo of squirrels’ nests, a dark blue rim on the horizon indicates wind moving in, and a white-crowned sparrow scritches under the feeders.  Better.  Even in winter, especially in winter, we need to wake up our lazy brains, reach for names that might be hibernating.

Last fall, I taught writing workshops at a school in a largely rural county.  I was shocked to discover most students couldn’t name objects in their bedrooms, much less the surrounding countryside.  Without specific details, writing is lifeless.  More important, if children can’t call up words, can’t distinguish between things, they will remain locked in wintry indifference.  Some blame falls on us.

A recent edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary swapped nature words for modern terms.  Out went acorn, wren, dandelion, nectar, and otter.  In went blog, bullet-point, attachment, chatroom, and voicemail. Updating dictionaries isn’t new.  And maybe cygnet isn’t as relevant as database, but it’s certainly more musical.  If we treat language like paper towels, it’s no wonder many kids can’t name common backyard birds . . . or ordinary objects.

When I was nine, my stepfather taught me the names of the trees in our woods, particularly the oaks.  I learned to identify red, white, black, pin, post, and chestnut oaks by their bark, leaves, and acorns.  Labeling trees, birds, and wildflowers didn’t give me a sense of ownership.  Instead, I felt connected to the planet.  I longed to know the names of rocks, but they kept quiet.

That same year we fourth graders were issued Thorndyke-Barnhart’s Junior Dictionary.  I fell on mine like a duck on a June bug, enchanted bynew words.  My parlor trick was spelling antidisestablishmentarianism, the longest word in the dictionary.  Kids can Google the longest word in the English language, but the experience isn’t the same as browsing through a big book of words.

Emerson wrote, “. . . the poet is the Namer, or Language-maker . . . The poets made all the words, naming things after their appearance, sometimes after their essence, and giving to every one its own name and not another’s.”  I believe young children are poets, assigning names and making up words to mark new discoveries.  After they become tethered to technology, they parrot words from commercials, programs, and video games.  That fresh language is lost.

So imagine my delight when I found a new book for children, The Lost Words: A Spell Book.  British nature-writer Robert MacFarlane paired with artist Jackie Morris to rescue 20 of the words snipped from the Oxford Junior Dictionary.  Words like newt and kingfisher are showcased as “spells,” rather than straight definitions.  MacFarlane’s spells let the essence of the creature sink deep, while Morris’s watercolors create their own magic.

On their joint book tour throughout England, MacFarlane and Morris introduced children to words—and animals.  On her blog Morris writes: “I was about to read the wren spell to a class of 32 six-year- olds when the booksellers stopped me. ‘Ask the children if they know what a wren is, first, Jackie.’ I did. Not one child knew that a wren is a bird. So they had never seen a wren, nor heard that sharp bright song. But now they know the name of it, the shape of it, so perhaps if one flits into sight they will see it, hear it, know it.”

The Lost Words makes me want to take children by the hand and tell them the names of the trees and birds and clouds that illustrate our winter landscape.  By giving kids specific names, they can then spin a thread from themselves to the planet.

“Language is fossil poetry,” Emerson continues in his essay, “as the limestone of the continent consists of infinite masses of the shells of animalcules, so language is made up of images, which now, in their secondary use, have long ceased to remind us of their poetic origin.”

Rock rasps, what are you? I am Raven!

Of the blue-black jacket and the boxer’s swagger,

Stronger and older than peak and than boulder, raps Raven in reply.

From The Lost Words

Let’s dig up lost words before they become buried beneath the rubble of STEM-worthy terms.  Feel the shape of them, polish their shells, let them shine.

 

 

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True Story

Posted January 7th, 2018 by Candice

Recently I attended a writer’s conference mainly to hear one speaker.  His award-winning books remind me that the very best writing is found in children’s literature.  When he delivered the keynote, I jotted down bits of his sparkling wisdom.

At one point he said that we live in a broken world, but one that’s also filled with beauty.  My pen slowed.  Something about those words bothered me. The crux of his speech was that as writers for children, we are tasked to be honest and not withhold the truth.

After the applause pattered away, the air in the ballroom seemed charged.  Everyone was eager to march, unfurling the banner of truth for young readers!  If we had been given paper, we would have started brilliant, authentic novels on the spot.

The keynoter’s message carried over into break-out sessions.  Panelists admitted to craving the truth when they were kids, things parents wouldn’t tell them.Participants agreed.  We should show kids the world as it really is!  The implication being that children leading “normal” lives should be aware of harsher realities and develop empathy.  Kids living outside the pale would find themselves, maybe learn how to cope with their situations.

I stopped taking notes.

Here’s my truth: I was born into a broken world.  By age four, I’d experienced scores of harsher realities.  At seven, I learned the hardest truth of all: that parents aren’t required to want or love their children.  I spent most of my childhood fielding one real-world challenge after the other.  I did not want to read about them, though few books fifty years ago explored issues of alcoholism, homelessness, and domestic violence.

I read to escape, delving into stories where the character’s biggest challenge was finding grandmother’s hidden jewels, as in The Secret of the Stone Griffins.  Fluff?  So what?  In order to set the bar, I had to seek normal and didn’t care if Dick-and-Jane families weren’t real.  Even Mo, the alien girl in Henry Winterfield’s Star Girl who’d tumbled from her spaceship, lived a normal life with her family on Asra, climbing trees on that faraway planet like I did on Earth.

In a family of non-readers, I broke free of the norm.  Not only did I read constantly, but decided to be a writer at an early age.  I’d write the kind of books I loved, books where secrets involved buried treasure, not things I had to keep quiet about; books where kids felt protected enough to embark on adventures.

My mother and stepfather regarded me with odd respect, as if unsure what planet this kid had come from.  So long as “story-writing” didn’t interfere with schoolwork (it did), my mother excused me from chores.  Only once did she declare reading material inappropriate.

I was nine and fresh out of library books.  I found a True Story magazine and was deep into story about an abused boy when my mother caught me.  She thought I was learning about sex.  I was outraged by the injustice:  punished for reading about a kid my age!  Now I think about the irony.

Then I grew up and wrote children’s books.  Most of my fiction was light and humorous.  Yet some brave writers tackled serious subjects.  My colleague Brenda Seabrooke wrote a slender, elegant verse novel called Judy Scuppernong.  This coming-of-age story touches on family secrets and alcoholism.  The format was perfect for navigating difficult subjects.

I sat down and wrote a poem called “Nobody’s Child.”  More followed, until I’d told my own story.  My agent submitted my book, “Nobody’s Child.”  One editor asked me to rewrite it as a YA novel.  “You’ve already done the hard part,” he said.  He was wrong.  Each time I revised (many times over the years), I had to crawl back into that dark place.  Some people said that by telling my story, I’d be able to put it behind me.  They were wrong.  I never will.

The truth is, I wrote “Nobody’s Child” to find answers.  I already knew the what and the how.  I wanted to know why.  But by then everyone involved was gone, taking their reasons with them.  If I were to fictionalize my story to help another child in the same situation, I couldn’t make the ending turn out any better.

In the fantasies and mysteries and books about animals I read as a kid, I figured out I’d probably be okay.  When I looked up from whatever library book I was reading, or whatever story I was writing, I noticed the real world around me.  Not all of it was broken. There were woods and gardens and cats and birds and, yes, at last, people who cared about me.

Author Peter Altenberg said, “I never expected to hold the great mirror of truth up before the world; I dreamed only of being a little pocket mirror . . . one that reflects small blemishes, and some great beauties, when held close enough to the heart.”

Valiant children’s writers will flash the great mirror of truth in bolder works than mine.  I’m content to shine my little pocket mirror at small truths, no bigger than a starling’s sharp eye, from my heart to my reader’s.

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Party Like It’s 1908

Posted January 2nd, 2018 by Candice

I bought my first antique postcard around 1980.  Mama and I were junkin’ at Law’s Flea, a stockyard turned antique market every Sunday.  A man was selling postcards.  I flipped through a box and pulled out one showing a wild turkey sitting on a fence in the moonlight.  It was the prettiest thing I’d ever seen.  The Thanksgiving postcard, dated 1908, started us both collecting holiday postcards.

Mama preferred the “turkey cards,” as she called them, while I gravitated to Halloween (the most expensive) and New Year’s.  I loved the New Year’s cards because they depicted good-luck imagery: four-leafed clovers, spiders, horseshoes.  I’m hopelessly superstitious (a trait from Mama)—I never take the tree down until New Year’s Day and always fix black-eyed peas and collard greens.

I found mostly 1908 New Year’s cards.  The penny postcard (made possible by cheap but gorgeous German lithography) and the penny stamp came into popular use that year.  Many people didn’t have telephones, but in larger towns and cities, mail was delivered three times a day.  You could write a postcard inviting someone over for supper, they’d get it, and reply they’d be there.

Each January I’ve displayed my favorite 1908 postcards.  In the 80s, I told myself they’d soon be 80 years old, then 90, then 100.  In 2008, I pulled out all my 1908 cards and tucked them all over the house.  Most of them look as if they were bought and sent the week before.

This New Year’s I’m sick with a rotten sinus infection.  I spent a festive New Year’s Eve in Patient First, making sure I didn’t have pneumonia.  I don’t, but I’m aware that my slowness in recovering is a sign of age.  I’ll be 66 in July, considered old back in 1908.  I didn’t feel much like digging out my postcard collection, but I did anyway, adding wintry silk flowers and my stepfather’s coin silver watch.

It’s 2018, and my collection is 110 years old.  I re-read the messages, admiring the lovely penmanship, and wondering what “H”s “dandy” Christmas was like—oranges in the toe of a sock, maybe ribbon candy, neighbors caroling in the snowy road—and longed for that simpler time.  My ever-practical sister, when I called to croakily wish her a happy New Year, reminded me I’d have no amoxycillin, no Flonase, no central heating if I lived in 1908.  Maybe not, but I still believe 1908 was better than now.

Tell me what’s lovely about texting a friend a New Year’s greeting?  Where are the four-leafed clovers, the forget-me-nots, the gilded horseshoes?  A party-hat emoji doesn’t cut it.  I already sent Christmas cards, but I’m also sending New Year’s cards.

I’ll keep my 1908 cards up till February.  Then I’ll pull out my vintage Valentines, still wishing for a simpler time.

 

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The Sameness of Sheep

Posted December 10th, 2017 by Candice

Once, when I discussed my work-in-progress middle-grade novel with my agent, I told her the character was eleven.  “Make her twelve,” she said.  “But eleven-year-olds aren’t the same as twelve-year-olds,” I protested.  “Those are different ages.”  “Make her twelve,” she insisted.  “The editor will ask you to change it anyway.”

I didn’t finish the book (don’t have that agent anymore, either).  The age argument took the wind out of my sails.  I understood the reasoning—create older characters to get the most bang for the middle-grade buck by snaring younger readers.  Better yet, stick the character in middle school.

The true middle-grade novel is for readers eight to twelve with some overlap.  Chapter books for seven- to ten-year-olds bisect the lower end of middle grade.  “Tween” books, aimed at twelve- to fourteen-year-olds, straddle the gap between MG and YA.  If my characters are twelve, I hit the middle grade and tween target and everybody wins.

Maybe not.

At our public library, I pulled more than a dozen new MG novels off the shelves.  Opened each book, checked the age of the main character.  Twelve.  Twelve.  Eleven!  No, wait, turning twelve in the next chapter.  While the characters and stories were all different, there was a sheeplike sameness reading about twelve-year-olds.

It worries me publishers contribute to pushing elementary school children as quickly as possible into middle school.  Where are the MG books about a ten-year-old character?  An eight-year-old character?  Ah, now we’ve backed into chapter book territory.

Supposedly, kids prefer to “read up” in age.  This assumes that, say, fifth graders want to know what to expect when they’re in eighth grade.  (Lord help them.)  Reading about a character who is two or three years older might generate anxiety in some readers.  And they may disdain shorter, simpler chapter books.

In the past, before publisher and bookstore classifications, age wasn’t much of an issue.  Wilbur is the main character in Charlotte’s Web, although the book opens with Fern saving him.  Fern is eight, a fact mentioned on the first page.  Does anyone care what grade Fern is in once he lands in Zuckerman’s richly-depicted barnyard?

More recently, Kevin Henkes broke the “age” barrier with his terrific middle grade novel, The Year of Billy Miller (2013).  Fuse 8’s Betsy Bird compared it to Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books.  Billy is seven and starting second grade, a character normally found in a briskly-written, lower-end chapter book.

Yet Billy Miller clocks in at a grand 240 pages.  Bird praises Henkes, “[He] could have . . . upped his hero’s age to nine or ten or even eleven.  He didn’t.  He made Billy a 2nd grader because that’s what Billy is.  His mind is that of a second grader . . . To falsely age him would be to make a huge mistake.”

Author G. Neri took on a bigger challenge.  In Tru & Nelle (2016), the characters are seven and six.  This hefty MG explores the childhood friendship between Truman Capote and Harper Lee.  Neri chose fiction rather than biography because, as he states in his author’s note, “[This] story was born from real life.”  He didn’t shy away from writing a lengthy, layered book about a first and second grader.

We need more books featuring eight-, nine-, ten-year-old characters that are true middle grade novels and not chapter books.  Children grow up too fast.  Let them linger in the “middle” stage, find themselves in books with characters their own age.

Let them enjoy the cycle of seasons, “the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep.” Soon enough, they’ll race away from the barnyard and rush into middle school.

 

 

 

 

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The Book Box

Posted November 6th, 2017 by Candice

For a fiction workshop, I asked participants to bring in childhood books that influenced them to become a writer.  Naturally, I did the assignment myself.  Choosing the books was easy, but they felt insubstantial in my hands, vintage hardbacks that lacked the heft of, say, the last Harry Potter.

When it came my turn to talk, I figured I’d stammer excuses for their shabby, old-fashioned, stamped jackets.  (“Well, this is the way library books looked in the fifties.”)

I wanted to tuck my beloved books in a box to keep them safe, like baby robins fallen out of a nest.  Really, what is a book, but ideas, adventures, people, and places protected by cardboard, shaped like a box?

I carried this notion with me on a trip to Michael’s, where I found a sturdy box with a jigsaw of little boxes stacked under the front flap.  I knew just what I’d do with this prize: showcase my favorite books in an assemblage.

At FedEx Office, I color photocopied the book covers, reduced them several sizes, then dashed through A.C. Moore’s miniature section to collect tiny endowed objects.  Next, I happily sorted through my scrapbook and ephemera stash for just-right window dressing.  I glued on paper, adding the objects.

Pictures and trinkets were pretty, but not enough.  The box needed words to set the stories—and their meaning—free.

I typed quotes and notes into strips folded accordion-style.  Margaret Wise Brown’s Home for a Bunny gently reminded me that once I had lived “under a rock, under a stone.”  Like the bunny, I had no home of my own until I was five.  This was my first book, my first experience in identifying with a character.

The title of Trixie Belden and the Secret of the Mansion contained “secret” and “mansion,” words that made my heart thump.  Trixie lived in the country like me, and had to work in the garden, like I did. Trixie stumbled into mysteries and I did, too, when I furiously scribbled whodunnits in fourth grade.  Just like that, I became a writer.

The Diamond in the Window opens with a quote from Emerson: “On him the light of star and moon/Shall fall with purer radiance down…/Him Nature giveth for defense/His formidable innocence;/The mounting up, the shells, the sea,/All spheres, all stones, his helpers be . . .”  At eleven, I skipped those words, but I didn’t ignore the small lessons from Emerson and Thoreau sprinkled throughout this fantasy/adventure/family/mystery story.  This book changed my life.

I had to be married on Valentine’s Day, after the “Bride of Snow” chapter (and I was one, too, in three feet of snow!).  Our powder room has a Henry Thoreau theme and we have a gazing globe (“The crystal sphere of thought”) in our back yard, like the Hall family.

With some thought and imagination, a book box can be a tangible book report.  Supplies required: a cigar box, construction paper, glue, and a favorite book.  A box covered in red construction paper could represent Wilbur’s barn.  A lid could replicate the map of Hundred Acre Wood.  Or Mr. Lemoncello’s library.

Making my book box helped me slow down and think about what my favorite books meant to me.  How Diamond in the Window led me to the works of Thoreau and Emerson, inspired me to look up from the printed page and truly see the great sphere of our world.

I still fill my pockets with rocks, pick up shells at the beach, and stare at the stars.  I wonder if the rocks were broken off from ancient glaciers, and what happened to the sea creatures inside the shells.  The shells and rocks stay in jars and boxes.  The stars cannot be contained, thankfully.

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Windward into Revision

Posted September 23rd, 2017 by Candice

In August 2016, I traveled to Vinalhaven Island off the coast of Maine to participate in a week-long festival honoring former resident Margaret Wise Brown.  I gave an evening talk, and, most fun of all, led a workshop in which attendees penned poetry and even a picture book in Margaret’s lyrical style.  Back home again, I wrote about my island experience and my personal connection to Margaret in a Knock Knock essay published last August.

I’d been working on a picture book biography of MWB for thirteen years, researching, writing, revising, traveling, submitting, getting rejected, revising, revising, revising.  I’d gone through every stage in the writing process: full steam ahead, tacking to keep my sails filled, sitting in dead calm, and finally, a busted rudder.

At what point do we give up on a manuscript?  How many rejections do we collect before we consider the book a failure?

Planning the trip to Maine, I knew Margaret and I were so over.  I still loved and admired her, but I needed to put this project in drydock.  I’d told her story from several points of view—Margaret herself, her dog, her potted plant, and even her books.  None of them worked.  Yet as I was packing T-shirts and sunscreen, I decided to revise one more time.

On Vinalhaven, I ate lobster and ice cream, read, stared at the water, and scribbled in a notebook.  I’d deliberately left research materials at home, bringing only the last version of my manuscript and Leonard Marcus’s Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon.  But a new “way in” eluded me.  While touring Margaret’s summer home, Only House, I watched a sailboat arrow down the bay.  Margaret wrote that way, forward-moving, effortless as a feather.  Why couldn’t I?

One morning at a read-aloud event, an elderly man recounted a surprising anecdote about Margaret.  I laughed and said to myself, “Only Margaret!”  Suddenly I was windward again.

I spent September writing the new version of my book, then sent it off to my agent who declared it “Gorgeous!”  She was the only one who felt that way, it seemed.  Rejections poured in.  Some editors asked me to revise heavily.  One editor, who’d seen a version of the manuscript years before, advised me to return to the style she’d rejected in 2008!

The calendar changed.  Fourteen years on a single project.  Did I waste all that time?  No.  My journey with Margaret has been priceless.  I learned more about an incredibly influential writer . . . and about myself.

One afternoon this past May, my agent called.  She asked if I was sitting down.  I was deep in work and barely paying attention when she said, “We have an offer on Margaret.”  What?!? I had to lie down.  Kathleen Merz of Eerdmans Books for Young Readers wanted to acquire my manuscript, “Only Margaret: A Story about Margaret Wise Brown.”

At first, the news felt like finally being able to stop hitting myself in the head with a hammer.  Then it seemed like a dream.  Did I really get that call?

Yep.

At what point do we give up on a project?  When do we quit revising?  Those are questions only we can answer.  I’m glad I tried once more.  I can’t wait to work with my editor on “Only Margaret,” to have fresh wind at my back, and expert direction.

Photos: top – taken from Margaret’s Only House; middle, bottom – from a scrapbook I made in 2005.

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