28 September 2016

Do We Dare Disturb the Universe?

What is the role of children’s literature? Should it be uplifting: a shining example of how we wish life could be like? Or should it reflect reality? How much reality? Who’s reality?

For the past several months I have been reading The Invisible Child by Katherine Paterson (author of Bridge to Terabithia and Jacob Have I Loved). I have been savoring it slowly, one chapter at a time. She writes about the role of a writer, the role of children’s literature, and how adults think too much. Well, that last one is really just my summation.

The latest chapter I read was titled “Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?”. Paterson chronicles her process in writing Rebels of the Heavenly Kingdom, a book she describes as a “disturbing tale of war and betrayal” (174). She has also written about the death of a child, a sister who hates her twin, and children in general who are searching for love and acceptance because their reality is lacking.

Many times I have heard it said that children’s literature should be an escape, that it shouldn’t deal with the harsh reality of the world. Some would say that children should be protected from the world, kept safe from the burdens of adulthood. To some extent I agree. My five year old does not hear or see the news. When I do talk about world events, it is with a filter. I have that luxury. There is not war in my backyard.

But we do talk about war. We do talk about death. Hard topics do come up and I do not believe we should gloss them over. I do not believe children’s literature should either. There are many children who do not have the privilege of childhood innocence; who’s reality is far from the paradise we hope our children grow up in. They need books that gently handle the hard topics of family in prison, death, and war.

Maybe I don’t tell my 5 year old about the black father that was shot by police, but there is a school full of children who don’t have that luxury because they are classmates with his daughter. They are facing that reality. Do we leave them to process for themselves, isolated and alone? Please read what a teacher in that school posted on Facebook: Rebecca Lee's Post

Literature has the power to come in and speak to a child when they won’t listen to anyone else. Paterson writes, “It is my hope, of course, that children will find these characters to be real children like themselves - that they will be able to see themselves in them and then as they come to love and forgive these people on the page to be able to forgive and love their own deepest selves” (48).

While reading this chapter my mind kept returning to a book I read recently, The Seventh Wish by Kate Messner. It chronicles a 12 year old’s journey through middle school life and the realization that her sister is addicted to heroin. There is a point in the book when Charlie is coming to terms with her sister’s addiction and mentions that she doesn’t look like a drug addict. She was a soccer player, part of school clubs and got good grades. She wasn’t greasy or unwashed, like the D.A.R.E. videos showed.

The Seventh Wish has been removed from school and library shelves and Messner has been uninvited for school visits. There are those who think it is too much for a young child to read. That the subject is too heavy. That they should be protected from this reality. But my state of New Hampshire is fighting a heroin epidemic, as many states are, and there must be children who fit this character’s description. There are children who need to read this book to know they are not alone. That they are seen and heard and their stories have value.

These types of books bite through the perceived childhood ideal. There are so many children starved of characters to relate to; characters who do not live the ideal, who’s reality is so far from paradise. To feed them only children’s literature that is tied up neatly with a bow is to disregard these children’s life stories. Paterson also writes that “[her] task is to see through the disturbance to the unity so marvelously built into the Creation - to somehow find my way through the cacophony of reality to the harmony of truth” (176). Books that handle harsh reality don’t leave the children there, they bring them through - not to a neat little package, but hopefully to a place of peace despite reality.

So, thank you Katherine Paterson and Kate Messner. Thank you for writing the hard stuff in such beautiful ways.

09 August 2016

Why Do I Bother?

I’ve barely started and I just want to run. This is ridiculously hard. Not the writing part, the getting published part. The finding someone who is actually taking unsolicited submissions. The getting someone to not just toss your submission in the recycling.

Why do I bother?

There are so many other writers out there trying to be published. Striving to be the next great author, the next big name. 

There are so many hoops to jump through. The publisher I was looking into isn’t taking unsolicited submissions unless it’s academic or ministry related.

Um, nope. 

Toddler board books. Though they are for our church nursery, doesn’t that count as a ministry?

Ok, so no unsolicited submissions, that means I need an agent. The ‘helpful’ list of Christian literary agents all say they are not taking picture books unless you are an author/illustrator.

Um, nope again.

Why am I even trying?

Because I see a need. 

I’m sick of ridiculous cartoon Jesus. I’m sick of Jesus being illustrated as a white man. Wake up American church! Jesus wasn’t white! 

I’m sick of good books being made into board book form with no thought to how age appropriate the text is (news flash, 18 month olds can’t sit through a paragraph of text on each page, even if it is a ‘board book’). 

I’m sick of not finding age appropriate, developmentally appropriate books about Jesus, faith, and the church.

So...I guess I become an illustrator.

13 July 2016

Writing My Own Fairy Tale

I’m trying to kick off this writing thing, but man it is hard. On June 27 I started an online writing workshop through author Kate Messner’s website. My challenge to myself was to write everyday for 30 days. It didn’t matter how much, just something every day. Maybe a list of things to include in the story, a character sketch, a map of the town, anything, every day. Well, today is day 10 of 36. (For every day I’ve missed, I’ve tacked it onto the end.)

A few months ago I was chatting with my friend and writing mentor. We were talking about books we love. I had started reading some of my favorites to get my creative juices flowing and had just finished Robin McKinley’s Beauty and Rose Daughter back to back. This woman wrote the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale twice! The same story twice! We were both raving about how Beauty and the Beast is our favorite story when she challenged me to write one myself.
Write my own Beauty and the Beast? But hasn’t it been over done? Wouldn’t it just sound the same? Who would want to read it?

I would, she said. Write it just for me to read.

I accepted the challenge.

During my first quick write, I was writing down aspects of the story that need to be in the fairy tale:
roses - definitely, it’s not Beauty and the Beast without the presence of roses
family - maybe sisters, I certainly like the versions of the story where there are siblings, father’s occupation?
magic - obviously the enchantment, but how much of a role does magic play in Beauty’s life before the Beast?
servants - there have been animated objects, animals, sprites and vapors, talking wind, etc.

Then came the thought: what if I switched the genders? What if the Beauty character was a male and the Beast a female? Would I have to come up with different names? As a wrote a scene where Beauty was under an enchantment and the male lead came to rescue her I realized an important plot point in Beauty and the Beast. The woman saves the day. It is one of the few fairy tales where the guy is the one locked in the castle and the woman comes in to save him. In switching the genders I was changing the only feminist fairy tale into the same-old, same-old of the guy rescuing the woman.

I wasn’t really sure how it was going to work out, but I kept writing. The Beauty character I named Jonathan, his sister is Anne and there is a village boy who helps them named Silas. I haven’t written a father character, it seems they are on their own. I like these characters so far, but they don’t seem to fit into the Beauty and the Beast story I was going for.

So, I am at a cross-roads. Put aside Jonathan, Anne and Silas for another story and write a more classic Beauty and the Beast. Or, forge ahead with the mixed up, switched up tale.

Here is a snippit to whet your appetite:

Beauty reached out her hand to touch the smooth bark and felt the vibrations before her fingers touched. It felt alive.
“Well of course it’s alive” Beauty said out loud, annoyed at herself for the fear that knotted her stomach. But this was different, it felt alive like the flank of a horse feels alive under your hand, pulsing, breathing, moving.
She took a step towards the grey trunk, then another cautious step, ready to walk past it. With the third step it was as if a switch had been flipped, the earth seemed to leap and buck beneath her feet, her head spun, her stomach dropped; she stumbled back, all was still. She stared at the grey tree rising tall into a dark, green canopy above her head. The trunk was thin for being so tall, she could almost encircle it with her hands. There were identical trees three paces to each side of the one that stood in front of her. She knew they continued, three paces apart, all around the great estate; encircling her, caging her in.
Beauty turned away from the line of trees, back towards the heart of the circle they made, back towards the great house. The grey stone of the house gleamed weakly in the dusk. In this light it looked the exact same shade as the bark of the trees. Beauty could see candles winking on as she entered the courtyard. Her dinner would be laid out soon. She climbed the stairs slowly, trying to make sense of what had happened.

28 June 2016

100 Steps

Thunder rumbling,
Clouds rolling in,
Breeze picking up;
Storm’s coming.

I can smell the rain, but the birds are still singing.

I am on day two of Teacher’s Write!, a 6 week online writing workshop. Today’s prompt was a quick write: walk 100 steps in the direction of your choice, stop and write about where you are, what you see, hear, smell and feel. Unfortunately, a storm is rolling in. The kind you can hear a long way off as it rumbles towards you, the breeze bringing the smell of rain. Sitting on the porch, I have the best vantage point. Weather maps say it will come from the west, straight across the lake. I hope the rain comes like a wall across the water; when you can see exactly where it is raining and where it isn’t.

If I could walk from here, I would direct my 100 steps towards Sherman’s. The once busy arcade, carousel, and Ferris wheel from fifteen years ago; go back further and there were other rides too, kiddie roller coasters, bumper cars. Now? I would see rusted metal, peeling paint, broken glass, evidence of a bygone era, a time when business thrived, though never really boomed; the summer months at least were good. I would hear geese squawking, traffic buzzing down 29A - but no one stopping. Maybe a loon would make a haunting call to its mate.

Sometimes I wonder how much I actually see of this place and how much is just memory. Are the carousel horses still there? Gathering dust, wood rotting, growing mold in the dampness. If I could take the 100 steps, I could peer in the stain glass windows and see for my self. Or would I just see it as I remember? The creaking wood, squeaking gears, deranged music playing over and over, $1 per ride, the smell of popcorn and ice cream from the concession.

I remember riding the Ferris wheel. Rising high, higher above the pavement, looking out over the lake, stopping, reversing directions, moving backwards, faster and faster.

I remember the lights, on the Ferris wheel and the carousel, old, bare bulbs blinking on and off.

I remember feeling the wind off the water. Canoeing from our beach to the dock at Sherman’s instead of walking, just because we could.

I remember saving my dollars in the months leading up to vacation just so I could ride the carousel and Ferris wheel as many times as I wanted.

I remember which horse was my favorite. A white one with flowing mane and tale, teal saddle.

I remember the year I saved my money, but it was closed.

Now it is empty. Boarded up against thieves and weather. It didn’t make enough money. But now there are no memories to make either.

The thunder is a constant rumble now. It hasn’t stopped for several minutes. This storm is going to be a doozy.

25 June 2016

'Empty-Calorie' Reading

    Every now and then as I am reading Young Adult Fiction, I come across a book I wish I had read when I was younger. When I finally read The Giver, I felt cheated that I hadn’t read it during my formative years. Yesterday I finished The Fog Diver by Joel Ross, and if it hadn’t been written in 2015, I would have felt the same way. 
    The Fog Diver describes a post-apocalyptic world where everyone travels by airships above the deadly Fog that covers the planet. Airships that are straight from a steam-punker’s dream; half blimp, half machine, with engines, valves and a pipe organ to steer it. All the markers of a perfect YA novel are there: danger, friends that stick closer than family, an evil villain and room for a sequel.
   I checked it out of the library, but forgot about it until got the reminder email that my books were due, today. I figured I’d be able to renew it, so didn’t take it with me. The librarian informed me someone has it on hold (good for them!). I bit my lip, trying to remember how long the book was, and said, ‘I think I can read it tonight’. She was sweet and reminded me I had a day of grace and that the library was closed on Sunday, so I could really have the weekend, as long as I returned it by Monday. Or, I could keep it till I’d finished and pay the .25 cents a day fine. “I’ll read it tonight,” I said with a smile. And I did. Well, almost. At 11pm I finally closed it, tantalizingly close to the finish. I was able to get the last few chapters read in the morning.
    It was fantastic, except...except that I’m not twelve anymore and I notice things. I notice what is there and what isn’t there. There was a lot of dialogue. The book is mostly dialogue, with no paragraphs of description. When there is non-dialogue description it is actually the thoughts of Chess, from whose point of view we see the world. When the author needs to give backstory he has a character ask a question and one or two other characters interrupt each other to give the story of why or where or how. It ends up feeling choppy, especially after the flowing, lyrical sentence I have been reading by E.B. White, L’engle, and Elizabeth George Speare. Do kids even know what good reading reads like anymore?
    I also ended up liking one of the supporting characters more than the main character. The book is written from Chess’ point of view, but Bea, the spunky ‘gearslinger’ who talks to the airship’s engines and treats her machines like people, ends up being the one my heart goes towards. The plot takes precedence over full-bodied characters. The characters are not fully fleshed out, but rather stereotypical (the mutineers who suddenly turn into our hero’s best friends).
    This novel has been nominated and shortlisted for a couple of awards including the Great Stone Face Award List, and I do feel that it is a good book. Perhaps it lands in the category of “empty-calorie” books. As Katherine Paterson writes in The Invisible Child,

            “We can’t snatch these empty-calorie books from our children’s hands, indeed, that would make them all the more desirable, but somehow we must make sure early on that they have books that will truly nourish them, that will enlarge their minds, that will prepare them to make wise and compassionate decisions when they are grown” (p. 94).

So don’t snatch this book away, snatch it for you child (or you!) and read it, in a sitting, in a day, in a week. It is good, like cake and ice-cream good. Just make sure you also read the 'meat and potatoes', something more substantial, something that will stretch your mind and fill you up with good writing.

Picture from www.amazon.com, cover art is copyrighted.

15 June 2016

Making A Start

By chance I picked up Katherine Paterson’s book The Invisible Child: On Reading and Writing Books for Children at the library. Isn’t that how all great book recommendations start? The best books are the ones you aren’t looking for, that you don’t know you even need to read. This is definitely on of them. The Invisible Child is a collection of speeches and talks that Paterson has given ranging from 1974 into the 2000s. It contains her Newbury and National Book Award speeches as well as a number of other talks from conferences. 

This book has been stirring me to read the books I was inspired by as an adolescent. What books captured my attention, my mind, my heart when I was nine or ten years old? So I have returned to the books I have kept since childhood. Faithfully packing and unpacking through several moves. Books I can not get rid of, no matter how many yard sales I have. It’s not that I have good memories of these books, no, these books are my memories. So I have been gobbling up the Newbury Award winners of my youth: Katherine Paterson, Margeurite Henry, Elizabeth Enright, Elizabeth George Speare. I am trying to learn from them. Study their style, rhythm, what makes their characters so relatable and memorable. What is the rhythm of their sentences? How does the story unfold? I want to learn from these masters, mentors, but without copying. Of course, I’m also enjoying just reading them.

As I re-read these cherished books, Katherine Paterson’s words ring true, “There is something so comforting about the beloved books of childhood. When the uncertainties of life assail us, they stand as healing verities, and we can return to them again and again. But only, of course, if someone helped us to find those books when we were very young” (95).

That’s what I want to write. A book that captures that young imagination and tells that shy, introverted child there is adventure out there, or at least in here, between the pages. Life may be a bit boring and monotonous, but you can escape into a book filled with adventure and new worlds.
So I have made a start. First by filling my head with rich words from amazing authors, then by actually writing down the stories that are running through my head. We shall see what adventure awaits...

11 January 2016

This Fight Isn't Over

Dressember is officially over. At least on my end. Wearing a dress for 31 days ended up being a bigger challenge than I thought it would be; I was definitely sick of wearing the same 5 dresses that ended up being my best options. Personally I learned that I should wear my dresses more often because I really like wearing dresses, and I learned which ones I should put in the Goodwill bag (not this purple one).

I also learned a lot about the work of organizations like International Justice Mission and A21. It is heartbreaking work, very young children sexually exploited by those who should be their biggest protectors or women who follow what seems to be an opportunity to better themselves but were lied to and now caught in dangerous situations.

Over the month of December, with the help of amazing family and friends, I raised $786. I was short of my $1000 goal, which at first feels like failure (thank you perfectionism) but that money will help IJM and A21 to rescue and rehabilitate men, women and children who have had their freedom and dignity stripped away. These organizations will try to restore what was taken and help them live their lives dignity. Dressember is over, but this battle is still ongoing.

Today is Human Trafficking Awareness Day. I have become much more aware of this over the past month. The statistics are heartbreaking, but these organizations are working to change that. "It is estimated that every 30 seconds someone becomes a victim of human trafficking. Only 1-2% of victims are ever rescued, and the average age of a victim is 12 years old." (Dressember Facebook page) If you want to be more aware, and hear wonderful, uplifting rescue stories, 'like' International Justice Mission on Facebook. They post stories of rescues and updates on their work around the world.

I am also happy to say my donation page is still live and will be till the end of the month! There is still time to donate and help me reach my $1000 goal!