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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A Working Writer’s Career, Part Two

Posted September 18th, 2017 by Candice

In Part One, I sold my first children’s book before the age of 30 (a thing for me), well within my five-year do-or-die deadline.  This was supposed to be published right after Part One, but I wrote a post in between and forgot to see if this had been published in Bookology!

After several months, I realized New York didn’t recognize I was the Next Big Thing.  I’d actually have to write my second book and sell it.  Timing was on my side.  It was the early 80s, when paperbacks filled mall bookstore racks.  Series books with new titles each month, priced for kids, were the Next Big Thing.  My second and third and many more books were original paperbacks.  Multiple publishers (though still not Lothrop, Lee, and Shepard) kept me busy.

I branched out to nonfiction, hardcover fiction, biography, and picture books.  For years I worked on contract projects during the week and spent weekends creating new books to submit myself.  At one point, I had six publishers.  I thought it would last forever: the work, the money, the opportunities.

Then things began to change.  Conglomerates like Time-Warner and Gannett took over smaller publishing houses, herding them together like sheep.  My beloved Lothrop, Lee, and Shepard folded.  Schools, the backbone of children’s book publishing, staggered from the Whole Language Movement to Back to Basics to Common Core.  Catsup was considered a vegetable in school lunches.  Budgets were cut.

Then came Harry Potter with its hordes of fans and subsequent movies and merchandising, a tsunami that flattened mid-list writers like me who’d been writing stories for average readers.  Before I could stand up, Twilight and The Hunger Games sucked the market into YA.  The digital age nearly drowned us all and the Big Five publishing houses required agented submissions.  Children’s writers were definitely not in Kansas anymore.

In July, I turned 65.  I’ve been writing children’s books for 35 years.  I’m still afloat, but my career isn’t what I envisioned back in the 80s and 90s when I wrote between four and six books a year, plus my own projects.  Back then I looked forward to being in my sixties, leisurely penning one novel a year, and living off royalties from my previous books.  Pfffft!

How have I stayed alive?  By being flexible.  I’ve moved from middle-grade fiction to picture books to nonfiction to easy readers to biographies . . . published everything from board books to YA.  Skipping around has made me difficult to categorize, a detriment at times.  But I relished doing different books, learning new things, taking on new challenges.  I believe flexibility has kept me fresh in an ever-changing field.  (Also, as my husband says, I don’t take “No” for an answer.)

2017 brought another milestone.  The Big Green Pocketbook has been in print continuously for 25 years, attaining classic status.  This simple little picture book did not blow out of the water when it first came out in 1993, yet has sold steadily, without fanfare.  No one had any notion it would do so well.

Despite publishers’ efforts today to tout the Next Big Thing, no one can predict what book will catch on.  They can give a book a huge push with tours and other promotion, but there’s no guarantee extra publicity will pay off.  In my mind, I don’t picture mobs of kids jostling in line for a hot book.  I see one child sitting on a sofa with a book on her lap, quietly entering the space between writer and reader.

It’s that image, rather than the illusion of big bucks and fame, that draws me to my desk day after day, year after year.  I simply do the work I’m meant to do.  And copy machines everywhere are grateful.

As of this week, I’ve sold 139 books.  People always gawk when they ask how many books I’ve had published (and are in the pipeline), but if you amortize that number over 35 years, it’s not that astonishing.  I’m a working writer, maybe a bit more prolific than some, but main thing is that I love what I do (I can’t do anything else at this point) and I’m not stopping any time soon. 

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How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Posted September 2nd, 2017 by Candice

September.  Yellow tickseed has overtaken chicory in roadside ditches.  Goldfinches are fixing to switch to olive plumage.  To me, it’s seemed like September since mid-July, when Walmart swapped beach towels and grill tools for back-to-school notebooks and gel pens.

School supplies remind me of waiting at the bus stop the day after Labor Day, dressed in long sleeves and wide-wale corduroy, gripping my brand-new plaid bookbag.  It was probably ninety-three degrees when the bus dropped me off in the afternoon, and Mama was in the kitchen canning tomatoes, but the season had shifted.  I’d have my first homework assignment: write three paragraphs on how I spent my summer vacation.

My paper was the same every year.  I did nothing.  I went nowhere.  We had a huge garden and raised hogs.  You didn’t traipse off and leave crops and livestock.  Actually, I spent my summers reading books, writing stories, and dreaming up stunts that got myself and my weak-minded cousins in trouble.

But I never wrote about that.  Or about going to the county fair  (summer highlight).  Or sipping grape Kool-Aid while reading the Classic comic version of “The Tinderbox” under my uncle’s weeping willow.  Or rolling down the hill just to get silly-dizzy and grass-itchy.

I never wrote about the time I visited my Maryland cousins, who lived close enough to a golf course to sell cold drinks pulled in a wagon to thirsty golfers.  I had the bright idea to collect stray golf balls and sell them.  Unfortunately, I didn’t know a golf ball stuck in a sand trap from one sitting on the green.  Players were not happy.

Somehow, I didn’t think those kid-stuff stories were worth telling.  Now I’m old and grumpy and if anyone asks me if I had a nice summer, I want to say, “What’s the deal about summer?  Does anyone ever ask if you had a nice fall?  Or how was your winter?”  No, we’re only interested in summer, a three-month break from school and (some) work, a time of being outside.

You’d never guess it’s summer in our neighborhood.  There is not a child to be seen.  They don’t ride bikes.  They don’t play in their yards.  They don’t dream up schemes that will land them in hot water.  Where are all those children of summer?  Holed up in the house, glued to screens.  We stayed outside from morning till after supper, reluctantly coming in to have our heads checked for ticks, to wash our feet, then go to bed.  Most of us would have to be chloroformed to stay indoors.

People don’t realize, but by the 1920s, after seventy years of industrialism, railroads, and smokestacks, experts worried about lack of sunlight on urban populations.  In 1929, the National Carbide Company published a “Sunshine Map” that showed hours of possible sunlight in fifty cities.  Reports made dire observations, such as “There was little hope of robust light in Detroit.”

According to the traditional Navaho calendar, the yellow of summer will soon meet the white of winter, and will turn its back on us.  Until then, we have September’s golden days to enjoy and inspire us.  Helen Bevington noted in her 1961 book, When Found, Make a Verse of, that “Longfellow liked the month of September.  Schiller needed the smell of rotten apples about him to make a poem.”

As for me, I need new school supplies and a new resolution to work one day a week in the library of nearby University of Mary Washington.  Yesterday I strode purposefully across the sun-drenched campus wearing my brand-new backpack, among robust students who make me feel less old and grumpy, and wrote a found poem.

In case anyone asks, I’m planning on having a great fall.

“Where Is the Sun Today?”

Take an “s” walk.

See how many things you can find that begin with an “s.”

Stars.

The stars are always up in the sky.

Very dim light from stars is lost.

Sun.

The sun is really a shining star.

The sun is a big, big place!

Summer.

The nicest thing about summer is how it gets people outdoors.

If you are confused about daylight,

select an upper window with a clear view.

You will be rewarded with a picture.

Note: Found poems use words from books or other printed materials.  My sources were More Research Ideas for Young Scientists (1961) and Compton’s Precyclopedia, Vol. 14 (1977).

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A Working Writer’s Career, Part One

Posted August 11th, 2017 by Candice

Note:  This is my latest Knock Knock essay for Bookology Magazine, an online publication about children’s books.  I am one of several contributors to the Knock Knock column. 

One Sunday morning in May, 1970, I sat on the mustard-colored sofa in our living room with the Spring Children’s Books issue of the Washington Post Book World.  I studied the reviews as someone who intended to have her book reviewed in that publication, preferably the Spring 1971 issue.  The back page featured an ad for Lothrop, Lee, and Shepard’s new list.  “My publisher,” I decided, because I liked the titles of their books.

I was seventeen, graduating from high school in three weeks.  Even though I had to get a job instead of going on to college, and I lived in the sticks far from New York’s publishing hub, I was dead serious about becoming a writer of children’s books.  Since I was fifteen, I’d been submitting my work to publishers.

Forty-seven years later, my much older self can still feel the scratchy fabric under bare legs, still see morning shadows tented over the sparsely-decorated living room.  I think, “Where did that kid come from?  How did she have the nerve to even dream such an outlandish thing?”

I didn’t come from reading family, but I read anyway.  I read and read and read, anything and everything, even in bad light, even in no light, until words crawled like ants on the page and my mother swore I’d ruin my eyes.  When I ran out of stuff to read, I scribbled my own stories with myself as the main character.

In my stories I was smart and clever and brave, not stupid in arithmetic, not slow in games because I couldn’t remember the rules, not afraid of heights and water and especially heights over water.  Writing stories gave me power.

Books gave me even more power.  I could go anywhere, be anything:  an ouzel bird nesting behind a western waterfall, a misfit Minnipin who rescued all the villages in the Land Between the Mountains, or a nosy old woman who stowed-away on a rocket ship to Mars.  Why shouldn’t I be part of the world of making books?  There was no other choice, nothing else I wanted to be, education or no education, support or no support.

That summer I traipsed off to the first day of my secretarial job, where I made history by breaking all the Xerox machines on each floor of the twelve-story building. My eye was on a bigger prize: At 25, I’d be a best-selling children’s book author, maybe have my own secretary.  I only began to have doubts that the universe might not quite be on my side when I turned 24, still a secretary (for a different company), and had sold exactly one tiny article to Highlights for Children, which was never even published.

Then I met the man who would be my husband.  He supported my dream.  I quit my job on a Friday, bought a desk that Saturday, and started working the following Monday.  I kept office hours and put myself on a Five-Year Plan—if I hadn’t sold a book in five years, I’d quit and go back to being a secretary.  The thought of breaking more Xerox machines lit a fire under me.  I sold my first book in two and a half years (though not to Lothrop, Lee and Shepard).

I was in!  I did it!  Then I waited with my hands folded for publishers to knock my door down for my second book.

[To be continued]

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Off the Grid

Posted July 16th, 2017 by Candice

Saturday I jumped in the truck with a bottle of water and a 25-year-old Virginia topographical map.  Where I was going Mapquest, Garmins, and smartphones were useless.  I drove north on Route 11, then west on Route 220, then, after some miles, made a left onto a windy road that doglegged around Tinker Mountain, ran parallel to the Appalachian Trail and crossed three county lines, Botetourt, Roanoke, and Craig.  Soon there was only sky, mountains, and road in front of me.

My destination?  An old one-room church and its cemetery.  I’d found lists of forgotten cemeteries in Botetourt County, most of them transcribed from county records in the early 1990s.  I liked the names in this particular cemetery (the last person was laid to rest in 1941) and wanted to photograph the one-room church.  It had been ages since I’d taken a photo-jaunt.

I followed the vague directions: “2 miles from Lone Star Concrete Plant, west on Rt. 600, sits up on a hill reached by foot across the road.”  The concrete plant is still there, with a different name.  Route 600 is clearly marked, though it’s a hard right on a curve.

Then I was in a leafy green cathedral.  Pavement became gravel as the road narrowed and twisted.  I glimpsed silos just beyond the tree tunnel, but few driveways.  Typical Virginia back country–no place to turn around, no place to pull off.

It occurred to me the one-room church, if it hadn’t already melted into the ground, was hidden from my view.  I could park in one of the driveways and scrabble around on foot, but it was already in the 90s.  The best time to explore alone is in January when the trees are bare and the snakes are hibernating.

Disappointed, I managed an awkward K-turn without sliding into a creek, and headed back.  A sign pointing to Haymakertown popped up and I went that way.

There was no town, only a scattering of eight or so brick ramblers braced against the mountainside.  The houses sat on three-acre lots, with tidy lawns, flowerbeds, and basketball hoops nailed to shade trees.  Instantly I fell in love with this tiny community backdropped by tremendous beauty.

I imagined everyone knew each other, helped shovel snow-blocked driveways, shared bumper crops of zucchini and tomatoes, watched out for children who missed the school bus, picked up extra gallons of milk for neighbors.  These people live off the grid.  Stores, banks, and schools aren’t a hop, skip, and a jump away.  Trips to “civilization” are more deliberate and special.

As I passed the hamlet, I thought about how much time I fritter running errands.  Every day I have a to-do list:  buy cat litter (with two large, always-eating cats, we go through a lot of cat litter), drop off library books, stop by the pharmacy.  If I crammed all my errands in a single day, I’d be gone for hours, just tooling around.  If we didn’t live in a town surrounded by stores and activities, I’d feel less pressured.  Have more time for work and play.

Short of moving to Haymakertown, I could pretend we live off the grid.  Ignore the siren call of the shops, tamp down the “need” to buy coffee because it’s on sale.  It might work . . . until we run out of cat litter.

 

Hitting the Refresh Button

Posted July 9th, 2017 by Candice

Confession:  I don’t know where the refresh button is on my computer, or what it does.  I only know I’ve been told to “refresh” a page for up-to-date information (I think).  I just click out of the Internet and start over.  Don’t laugh.

In 1982, when my husband bought my first PC (an Osborne we still have) and dragged me kicking and screaming into the home computer era, things were pretty simple.  Then came the Internet around 1997 (for me) and that wasn’t too bad either.  I could find books from my childhood!  Twenty years later, the digital world is out of control, so many changes, so many updates, that I find myself in front of the Mr. Coffee maker, unable to figure out which button to use.  Sometimes I feel like running away.

Here at Hollins University this summer, I’ve listened to a number of guest speakers.  The question of social media platforms has come up.  People are anxious about what they should be on and to what extent (worries too often from people who haven’t even written a book).  What about the pitfalls of creating a brand too soon?  If your online persona reflects the sexy YA you just published, what if you write a picture book next?

Discussions expand to the types of social media and I remembered how MySpace was all that and a bag of cats until it was overrun with “older” people.  Young people jumped ship to Facebook, but darned if their parents didn’t follow them over there so they could post embarrassing baby photos and play Candy Crush, so next the hipsters defected to Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat.  Somehow Facebook and Twitter became “musts” for writers and illustrators, along with websites (blogs seem to have fallen out of favor), and now I’m hearing murmurs we should be on Instagram, too.

I have a website (woefully out of date and in the process of being re-done), a personal FB page and a fan FB page that I forget about most of the time.  I will never have a Twitter account and, because I don’t own a smart phone, can’t use Instagram.  As the digital world leaves me in the dust more each day, am I in danger of not being published because I don’t maintain a broad social platform?

Tomorrow I turn 65.  (Medicare!)  I have been in this business more than half my life.  Writing for children is my life.  Yes, times have changed but I’ve managed to weather those changes and stay fresh.  Didn’t nobody draw those 137 books I’ve sold.  Yet I spend more hours now working than I did back in the day.  I’m older and slower, but also more thoughtful.  Age has given me perspective and experience, things I can’t describe in 140 characters or less, or prettied up through a digital lens.

Being at Hollins allows me to refresh, away from housework and errands and the hunting and gathering of food.  I walk out the door into cardinals singing, cicadas drilling, muskrats foraging, herons stalking, buzzards gliding.  Trees and mountains and fields.  Oh, how I love fields.  Give me a blanket of chicory and Queen Anne’s lace, horses under blue skies and I’m in heaven.

Every chance I get, I ditch screens and emails.  It’s enough I do my work at a computer.  My body isn’t meant to stay hunched over a laptop, much less have a phone clamped to my hand.  What’s better than driving the little red truck down a winding road, windows down, into the deep green of a Virginia summer?

What I see won’t be Instagrammed, what I experience won’t be crammed into a YouTube video.  Real, unfiltered life seeps into my work, far more important than broadcasting on any social media.

I’m glad to be 65, old enough to have lived before the digital age and know I have a choice.  If I need to be refreshed, I don’t hunt for a button.  I just go outside.