When a Map Is a Journey

Posted March 16th, 2019 by Candice

It has been said that a map isn’t a journey.  But sometimes–especially in books–it is.

The first map I remember was flashed briefly on TV, part of a commercial for Story Book Land.  It aired on “Captain Tugg,” a local kiddie program.  I adored Captain Tugg, so anything he endorsed must be gold.  Like the home-movie type kid shows of the 50s and 60s, Story Book Land was a family-owned amusement park.  And for my ninth birthday, I was going to Story Book Land!

The day of my trip brought a family crisis.  After things had settled down, we went to Story Book Land.  My mother sat on a bench while I followed the colored map given at the ticket booth to Robin Hood’s Tree House and Ali Baba’s Cave.  The map promised adventure, but the park itself, with its fiberglass houses and nursery rhyme figures, fell short.  This may have been my earliest experience with anticipation exceeding the actual event, yet my love for maps grew out of that disappointment.

The fantasy books I read abounded with maps.  The Hobbit, Watership Down, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Wizard of Oz, the Narnia books, all provided maps to help readers picture imaginary worlds.  As Richard Padron says in Maps: Finding Our Place in the World, “[verbal mapping does] not have the same impact, [or] provides quite the same experience.  That impact has everything to do with the seductions of seeing a world that is not our own.”

I was enchanted with the map in Carol Kendall’s The Gammage Cup.  Erik Blegvad’s drawing of The Land Between the Mountains gave me a sense of the topography, essential to understanding the story.  My finger traced the river tumbling from Snowdrift Mountain to the forbidding Frostbite Mountains.  The river was the source of life for the tiny Minnipins.  If I ever found myself in the Land Between the Mountains, something I wished for mightily, I’d easily make my way to Slipper-on-the-Water, the best of the twelve villages.  The map added to my reading experience, kept me anchored in that world longer, which was fine by me.  My own world was a grease spot in the road in rural Fairfax County, sadly lacking rivers and mountains, giants and tiny people.

Maps in contemporary fiction serve the same purpose.  When I read The Long Secret, the sequel to Harriet the Spy, I entered a place as foreign as any fantasy: the hamlet of Watermill, Long Island.  It was a stretch to navigate the references of well-heeled people, such as the fact Beth Ellen’s mother was in Biarritz.  Was that a mental institution, I wondered?  The map showed me that rich people lived in the country, too, if only “summering.”  Meticulously rendered roads, houses, shops gave me confidence I could walk down Montauk Highway to Harriet’s or Beth Ellen’s house.

In a blog post on maps in literature, Nicholas Tam says, “Fictional maps introduce the complication of having, at minimum, two layers of authorship: the layer outside the text that has the power to dictate and reshape the world, and the layer that belongs to the reality of the world.  The author is in the first and the characters are in the second.”

The map by Christopher Robin in Winnie-the-Pooh, with its childlike language (“100 Aker Wood,” “Floody Place”) lets readers believe the place is real because it was drawn by a peer.  Christopher Robin may be a character in the story, but he is also a kid that readers can trust.  I came to Winnie-the-Pooh as an adult, yet Hundred Acre Wood seemed real (it is!).  It’s safe to assume that Tam’s second layer dominates the authorship of that map.

Yet authorship of a novel’s map isn’t always reliable.  Look at Robert Lawson’s gorgeous end papers for Rabbit Hill.  Animals are depicted bigger than the landscape and buildings, certainly not to scale, though their larger-than-life size suggests their importance against the human backdrop.  To the right, “Our Burrow” indicates the rabbit narrator drew the map.  But would a childlike rabbit be able to create such a lovely piece of art?  It’s clear to me that the first layer—the layer outside the text dictating and reshaping the world—is the author.  This doesn’t bother me one whit.  If Rabbit Hill is this dazzling, I’m ready to move there.

Maps in children’s books made me notice my own surroundings.  Suddenly the grease spot in the middle of Lee Highway wasn’t that boring.  Houses, barns, the auto garage, the motel, all were magic landmarks that I knew by their secrets.  When I began writing for publication, I set most of my stories where I grew up, carrying in my head those houses and barns, long after I left, long after the place changed drastically.  Their secrets stayed with me.

In Abi Elphinstone’s essay in The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands, she too uses the map of her childhood in her books.  But she goes one step further, she draws her own maps, especially on “those days when the words sit stubbornly out of reach.”  She says, “I have never found myself at a loss when doodling an imagined world.”

For my new work in progress, I’ve brought out colored pencils and Micron pens.  I don’t draw that well, but I know my created world won’t be made of fiberglass.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Teaching Passion

Posted February 10th, 2019 by Candice

Some years ago, when the director of Hollins University’s graduate program in children’s literature asked me to teach a critical class on the history of children’s book illustrators, I said no.  Even with an MFA in writing for children from Vermont College, an MA in children’s literature from Hollins, scores of published books, and years of teaching graduate-level creative classes, I still felt like a fraud.  Someday I’d be called out because I never got an undergraduate degree or understood what “dialogic” meant.  But the director insisted I was the only one who could teach this course, required for students in the new MFA Writing and Illustrating Children’s Books program.

I thought it over.  Maybe . . .  When I was nineteen, I bought a children’s literature textbook at a yard sale.  That one-dollar book became the first in my children’s literature library, with a heavy concentration in illustrators.  What I lacked in academic experience, I could make up for in passion.  As a kid, I longed to be an illustrator, switching to animation when I was a teenager.  Those dreams never transpired, but my love for art stayed true.

Once home from that summer of teaching, I gathered my books on illustration.  The floor nearly fell in!  I had so much material, I didn’t need to leave my house.  The course would begin with the earliest children’s book illustrators, up to the end of the twentieth century.  Hollins summer terms are six weeks, two classes a week, each class three hours.

I would cover the early illustrators in the first class, then spend the rest of the term highlighting technique, printing methods, and ground-breaking artists.  My outline looked deadly.  I tossed it and any pretension I had of being a “real” academic.  I’d teach the class the way I wish someone would have taught me—moving chronologically through time, giving backgrounds of illustrators, and, most important, telling stories along with showing the art.  Students would get plenty of information, but they would also have a sense of the artists’ lives.

The outcome for the students?  Rather than turn them into walking encyclopedias, I wanted them to fall in love.  Fall for one illustrator, one artist that would change their lives, change the way they made their own art.

I began scanning illustrations for PowerPoint presentations.  My little flatbed scanner hummed day after day until I had 1000 slides.  A thousand!  Even spread out over twelve classes, a thousand slides would send students flying for the exit.  I cut and cut, until I had 500 slides.  Well, they’d get their money’s worth.

On the first day of our class, I told the students to buckle up, their first lecture would be like a motorcycle ride through the Louvre.  We covered 150 years of illustration, from the 1830s (George Cruikshank) to the 1930s (E.H. Shepard), crisscrossing between England and America.  There were 75 slides, my script was 35 pages.  Amazingly, they all came back for the next class.

Halfway through the term, I added another facet to the unit on mid-century illustrators.  Artists who’d started at Disney Studios and gone on to produce children’s books—people like Bill Peet, the Provensens, and Gyo Fujikawa.  Twelve classes was not enough!  So, I created a thirteenth class, something no one had ever done before.  Working around students’ schedules, we met during lunch.

Instead of a single text, students were required to discuss ten picture books I’d selected.  Many had never seen Robert Lawson’s technically brilliant line-work for Ferdinand the Bull.  They all knew Clement Hurd’s art for Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon but had missed Jean Charlot’s masterful pastels in A Child’s Good Night Book.  Although I’d put together a zillion slides, I staggered into each class with more examples of the featured artist’s work.  Slides are great, but nothing beats paging through actual books, most vintage or hard-to-find.

We had “special” days, such as sampling every black form of media I could lay my hands on for students to emulate Wanda Gag’s printer’s black.  We ate blueberry Danish during the Robert McCloskey class.  Students tore pieces of colored paper and made Leo Lionni-style collages as we discussed Little Blue and Little Yellow.  Students brought in books from mad-dash trips home.  They showed sketches in the style of Virginia Lee Burton and other illustrators we’d covered.  And they did what I hoped—they fell in love.

After my initial run, I repeated the course every other year.  Students proclaimed it was their very favorite class in the program.  On the last day of the term, we traditionally eat Krispy Kreme donuts and I ask the students who they fell in love with during the term.  Often, it’s more than one illustrator. Then there are hugs and heartfelt goodbyes, even a few tears.

Summer 2018 was the final time I taught that lovely course.  After thirteen years at Hollins, I needed to spend summers home for personal reasons.   As it turned out, my students changed my life, and teaching became my passion.

On the last day of my last illustration class, I gathered my materials one last time, looked around at the empty classroom where I’d taught so many wonderful Tuesdays and Thursdays, and turned out the light.  The tears were mine.

 

 

 

 

 

England Have My (Winter) Bones

Posted January 27th, 2019 by Candice

I love winter indoors.  Outside, not so much.  I’m not a fan of snow, bitter temperatures, ice, chilling rains, and many gray days in a row that constitute a Virginia winter.  Even as a kid, I didn’t like winter sports.

So, every January and February I escape Virginia and head to Britain.  I read British books, buy British travel magazines, and scour the international aisle in Wegman’s for lemon curd, crumpets, and imported cookies.  And tea!

My taste in tea is white–the only kind I drink because it’s mild and low in caffeine.  White tea has suddenly become very popular for its health benefits.  I can make little tea sandwiches, but I’d rather cut to the chase and fix scones, crumpets, and shortbread.  I don’t care if I never see another sprig of kale or grain of quinoa.

My tastes in reading are broad: from Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (but not Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno), to chick lit by Jenny Colgan, whose characters are always running tea shops or bakeries in remote Cornwall or the Outer Hebrides, and Sophie Kinsella’s London-infused capers, to the hunting and gun dog mysteries of Gerald Hammond, to the country house sagas of Elizabeth Jane Howard and Susan Howatch.

I also read older British authors.  Just look at Frances Hodgson Burnett’s autobiography, The One I Knew the Best of All.  This copy, that I paid less than $9, was given to “Agnes, from Mamma, Christmas 1893.  A tea-worthy book if ever there was one.

In January I dip into the novels of Angela Thirkell, best known in the 1930s and 40s for her satirical look at rural village life.  Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles is another favorite.

When I’m not reading British books, I’m watching British television.  I just finished Season 2 of “The Crown,” and am champing at the bit for Season 3.  Until it’s out in DVD, I’ll be satisfied with biographies of the royal family.

The title of this post comes from T.H. White’s memoir England Have My Bones.  T.H. White was born in British India at the turn of the century.  Like most children of colonial parents, he was sent to school in England.  He is best known for The Once and Future King, a series of four novels about King Arthur.  You might know The Sword in the Stone from the Disney movie.  His children’s book, Mistress Mashem’s Repose, is a classic.

I revisit all these books each winter and discover new ones (eagerly awaiting my reserve library copy of The Gown by Jennifer Robson, about the women who made Princess Elizabeth’s wedding dress), teacup by my side.  Join me in a cuppa?

Paperback Writer

Posted January 20th, 2019 by Candice

Once upon a time, I sold a million books.  Most of my books landed on bestseller lists.  Every Saturday was devoted to answering fan mail.  Readers figured out where I lived and came to my house.  What? you’re thinking.  Not Candice Ransom, author of a lot of books, but who has hardly set the world of children’s lit on fire.  Maybe not Candice Ransom.  But Candice F. Ransom, yes, indeed.

Since I was 15, I imagined my middle-grade novels on library shelves.  However, my first book, published by Scholastic, was for young adults.  The original paperback, with a photograph of a teenage girl on the cover, cost $1.95.  It was 1982, and I had caught the wave of teen fiction, a wonderful time chronicled by Gabrielle Moss in her book, Paperback Crush: The Totally Radical History of 80s and 90s Teen Fiction.

Gabrielle interviewed me and other “paperback writers” from that time period.  As the book jacket states: “These were not the serious issue novels of the 1970s, nor the blockbuster YA trilogies that arrived in the 2000s.  Nestled in between were the girl-centered teen books of the ‘80s and ‘90s—short, cheap, and utterly adored.”

The attraction to these books?  By the 1980s, malls were everywhere and that’s were kids hung out.  Chain bookstores like B. Dalton, Waldenbooks, and Brentano carried a huge selection of mass market paperbacks.  Kids used their allowance to buy an inexpensive book, read it in an afternoon, and trade with friends.  Series like Sweet Valley High hooked readers with spin-offs.

During the mid- to late-80s, I was best known for the Sunfire romances—a series of historical romances aimed at teen readers but judging from my fan mail were gobbled up by girls as young as ten—and also for my own series, the Kobie Roberts books and My Sister trilogy.  Scholastic Book Clubs ensured world-wide readership.

My path to publication wasn’t at all what I’d envisioned when I was 15.  I was well beyond the goal I’d set in high school to be a “best-selling children’s writer” by the time I was 25.  In Writer’s Digest magazine, I found a listing from Ann Reit, editor at Scholastic, who was looking for romantic suspense for teens in the vein of Phyllis Whitney.  I wrote three chapters and a one-page outline.  Ann Reit called and offered me a contract.

I wrote the book nervous as possum in a slop bucket—Ann Reit would surely trap me as a fake.  Instead she noted I’d used authentic research and asked me to write the first title in a brand-new series of historical romances.  The first book would be set on the Oregon Trail.  I lived and breathed the Oregon Trail for months.  For the second book, I suggested the Civil War in Virginia—research I could get to more easily.  Amanda and Susannah became the launch titles for the Sunfire series.  And I was off to the races.

From 1982 until Ann Reit retired years later, I never lacked for work, often under contract for four to six books a year.  There were other series—Crystal Falls, Junior High, Dear Diary—that I wrote under a house pseudonym.  The Dear Diary pseudonym was Carrie Randall, created to be next to my books on bookstore shelves.  By then I was a regular on the B. Dalton and Waldenbooks bestseller lists.  I wrote my own series and many stand-alone middle grade titles.  At signings, I sat down to long lines.

But . . . there was a downside to being a paperback writer.  Libraries were reluctant to carry the books.  They were flimsy, unless the covers were laminated.  For me personally, my biggest snub came from the revered children’s only bookstore in Washington, D.C., Cheshire Cat.  I loved that store.  I attended many events, bought hundreds of books, but they never carried my books and I was never asked to do a signing, except as part of the Children’s Book Guild of Washington, D.C. yearly group signing.

I thought those days would last forever, those busy paperback writing days, even after I moved on to writing hardcover books.  But times change.  Kids read less now, most of those lovely children’s-only bookstores closed, along with all the rest of the bookstores, and Harry Potter raised the bar with incredible sales, movies, and theme parks.  How can a $1.95 paperback possibly compete?

Fans–even editors!–contact me often.  The Sunfire books were the topic of one young woman’s PhD dissertation.  Gabrielle Moss wrote a serious—and gorgeously illustrated—book on paperback teen fiction.  An artist fan, now a good friend, made me a Kobie Roberts doll!  Another artist told me she became an artist because that’s what Kobie wanted to be.  Most just want to say hi, to let me know how much they loved Nicole or Thirteen, to say they still have their old copies, or, best of all, to let me know they’re introducing their own daughters to them.  You can’t ask for better than that.

The Books We Keep Forever

Posted January 12th, 2019 by Candice

In late September of 2018, I stood at the corner of 37th and Madison Avenue in New York City and gazed longingly at the elegant pink marble building that housed J.P. Morgan’s library, now the Morgan Library and Museum.  I’m willing it to be January 25, 2019, the opening of the Morgan’s exhibit: “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth” exhibit.  But I must wait.

I only travel to New York every three or four years, but I’ll come back to see this exhibit, even if I have to crawl.  You see, I read The Lord of the Rings when I was thirteen.  Afterward, I moved to Middle-earth and stayed the next eleven years.  I drew pictures of hobbits and Gandalf and thumbed to page 126 in The Return of the King again and again to experience the most thrilling sentence in English literature—“Rohan had come at last.”

I have several copies, including the 70s hardcover editions in slipcase, a heavy one-volume edition I read with the book propped on a pillow, and the movie-based versions.  But the books I prize most are the 1967 Ballantine mass market paperback editions with Barbara Remington’s strange cover art.  Originally, I checked out each volume from the library in hardcover, read it in school, in bed, in the car, as I walked, and returned it feverishly praying the next volume would be on the shelves.  When I found the paperbacks in the first bookstore in Fairfax, I nearly fainted.  My very own Lord of the Rings!

The fantasy made me want to tell everyone about the trilogy and at the same time tell no one.  I wanted Tolkien’s masterpiece all to myself.  This is a common notion among bibliophiles.  In her memoir, My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues, Pamela Paul writes, “I considered certain books mine, and the idea that other people liked them and thought of them as theirs felt like an intrusion.”  I also wanted more Lord of the Rings, but there wasn’t any.  And The Hobbit didn’t cut it.

Those paperbacks went everywhere with me, house to house, state to state.  In each move, things got left behind: yearbooks, my high school diploma, my mother’s kitchen table, the dress I was married in (not a wedding dress).  But never Lord of the Rings.

On my last morning in New York, I wandered around the Upper West Side with children walking to the various P.S.’s and private schools I’d read and wondered about in books like Harriet the Spy.  They walked with parents and nannies and baby brothers.  They walked with friends and dogs and siblings on scooters.  These three children stayed ahead of me.  At first I thought the boy was staring at a device.  But he was reading a book!  He wasn’t catching up on homework, he turned the pages too fervently.  His book was so engrossing, he couldn’t put it down.

In an essay in the October 2018 Harper’s, William Gass writes of his beloved Treasure Island, a cheap paperback that saw him through “high school miseries,” went with him to college, and was stowed in his Navy duffel during WWII.  Despite the yellowed, brittle pages, Gass admits, “That book and I loved each other.”  He doesn’t mean the text, but the physical book.  Books on a screen, he maintains, “have no materiality . . . off the screen they do not exist . . . they do not wait to be reseen, reread; they only wait to be remade, relit.”  I can’t imagine squinting at The Lord of the Rings on a Kindle, trying to find page 126 in the third volume, unable to lose myself in Remington’s cover art that forms a triptych when the individual books are lined up.

As a child in the 80s, Pamela Paul sought vintage “yellow back” Nancy Drews (the ones I read as a child).  The original 30s blue spine books were too old, and the new paperbacks were “loathsome.”  She preferred the 60s editions with their interior drawings and “broody cover paintings.”  The quality of the paper, the binding glue, the end papers made the book a treasured object, “the vase as much a pleasure as the flowers.”

The books we keep forever are the ones we owned back when buying a book was a big deal.  When we made the effort to track down special editions.  When we would walk and read because the book would not leave our hands.  I hope the book that New York schoolboy was reading changed his life, that it was his, and that he would keep it forever, no matter where he went.

After high school, I got a job as a secretary.  I hung a poster of Remington’s Lord of the Rings cover art over my desk.  (Clearly, I was not your average secretary).  At the age of 24, I decided it was time to leave Middle-earth.  In March of this year–I’m counting the days–I’ll return to New York to see Tolkien’s original papers and drawings and maps.  I’ve already bought my “train reading” book, A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered, Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918, by Joseph Loconte.

Meanwhile, I’ll re-read my Ballantine paperbacks.  The door to Middle-earth is always open.

 

 

 

Resolutions? Goals? Or Status Quo?

Posted January 5th, 2019 by Candice

My only artwork in 2018

In exercise class this week, various instructors asked us if we’d made resolutions, or had goals for the new year.  At 66, I am over resolutions.  How much of my life can I meaningfully change at this stage?  It’s enough to keep moving forward and maintain goals made in the last few years.  Watch my weight, eat right (big slips the last two months!), 10,000 steps.  Work goals remain the same: keep writing each day if I can.

On Facebook, I skimmed past friends’ plans and goals.  Many of us use the New Year to set a new course.

As for planning, in past years I’ve bought every kind of planner known to man to help me figure it out.  I’ve long been seduced by Bullet Journaling, not for its practical aspect, but for the gorgeous pages I see on BuJo sites.  Who wouldn’t want to decorate their daily pages with watercolor stories or lovely handwritten titles?  I have a box of journaling supplies and how-to books, but in the evenings, after a long day of work, supper, dishes, laundry, and separating cats who tear through the house like it’s a gymnasium, I have little energy for painting morning glories or making calligraphy entries.  In the mornings, I’m up before 6:00 to sort out cats, do household chores, shower, and be out the door by 7:10 to go to exercise.  I’m not likely to fill out a Bullet Journal then, either.

By Journalella

Planners with templates to plot out the future don’t work for me, either.  It’s impossible for me to project what I’d like to be doing five years from now.  But what did work for me last year–and was quite eye-opening–was a daily record of what I’d done.  To-do lists and daily or weekly tear-off pages get tossed.  I designed a weekly template, made 52 photocopies, and put them into a 3-ring binder.  Each evening while I watched TV (or “boxed sets” as they say in England, since we don’t have cable or Direct TV or stream), I listed everything I’d accomplished that day, from emails to research to chapters written.  I’ll keep the binder for 2018 and have already started one for 2019.

Why keep track of what we’ve done as opposed to making future plans?  Because we tend to forget our daily accomplishments.  I know I wrote eight books last year (many were very short) and taught two classes.  But how did those books get written?  Or revised?  What happened in the weeks I taught?  I was amazed at how much work I did in a single day.  Unlike artists, writers don’t have a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day.  Words on a screen, shut away in a computer file, and we may delete it all the next day.  Not much to see.

If I’ve learned anything over the last ten years, it’s that I have to keep learning.  I never got an undergraduate degree, and by the time I started graduate school at the ripe age of 50, I worried I wouldn’t be able to keep up.  I did, though I sweated out those papers!

So I don’t have any resolutions or goals for 2019.  But I’m not exactly staying status quo, either.  I’m giving myself the gift of learning.  Starting today, I begin an online course through Cornell University’s Ornithology Lab: “Comprehensive Bird Biology.”  I have a real textbook and a new notebook.  (I opened up the textbook when I got it to a page with a bird cut open–well, I asked for it!)  When I finish in about three months, I’ll have a certificate in a subject I’ve wanted to learn since I was ten years old.

Next, I’ll find a course in geology.  Let the wonder continue.

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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