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Why Write for Children?

Why write for children instead of adults?

(I am thinking about this question because on October 8 I’m going to speak at a WRITE ON THE SOUND, a weekend writing conference in Edmonds, WA. Most of the conference is focused on writing for adults.)

More exactly: Why create picture books for children instead of write for adults?

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Notice I had to rephrase my question. That’s because I need the pictures part – I love telling my stories with pictures as well as words. I love the dance of text and art; the possibilities and humor and resonance as these two ways of telling bring a story forward.

Most of all, I love the form: the 32-page structure. As surely as a sonnet or a villanelle is proscribed by demands of rhythm and rhyme, the 32-page structure shapes a picture book story’s telling. The page turns create a cadence, a pacing. And it all happens in less than, say, 700 words: a beginning that typically introduces a character and his or her dilemma, a middle full of rising tension as things get worse, then even worse, then worst of all before the end where the character figures a solution, hopefully one that is unexpected and yet expected, hopefully one that changes character and reader. The 32-page structure forces a writer to condense and clarify, to make every word earn its keep.

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Plus it seems the stories I want to tell are geared to a child reader. I’ve had my nose in a book since I learned to read — and it amuses me to create stories that would have amused the child I was.

Then there’s the fact that some of my favorite times as a parent were spent reading picture books with our kids. Picture books are read and reread. Sometimes they become part of a family’s way of looking at the world. They matter. (The books illustrating this blogpost are picture books that are part of our family’s history.)

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Plus I like what CS Lewis said about writing for children: “Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. They accept, almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly.”

The more I understand about the craft of writing for children, the more satisfying it is to try to express my story ideas. After 26 years, the question for me is not why write for children instead of adults, but how to keep my work fresh and alive, and better tap into the original vision of each picture book project.

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On October 8, I will share my enthusiasm for the art and the craft of picture books with the adult writers at WRITE ON THE SOUND. I wonder what stories they might create, were they to bend their considerable writing skills to this 32-page wonder?

Now it’s your turn: Why write for children instead of adults?

Note: WRITE ON THE SOUND is already sold out.

 

 

 

 

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LISTEN

I spent a lot of time playing the ukulele in 2015, including ukulele camp at Fort Worden where one of my teachers was Aaron Keim. Aaron and his wife Nicole form the duo The Quiet American, picking and singing their way through the folk Americana songbook. He’s a gifted teacher, too. While leading us through his transcription of John Fahey’s Sunflower River Blues, he advised: “By the time you start working on a piece, you should listen to it so much that it is already living in you.”

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The duo called The Quiet American: Nicole and Aaron Keim of Hood River, OR

I like that idea: listen until it is living in you. I know how that feels for a song and also for a story. In fact, I think songs and stories dwell in the same heartful place.

It is a mysterious process, bringing a story into the world. You head out with a few phrases, a character maybe, a situation. You tell yourself your story, imagine it into the world scene by scene. Pretty soon, if you listen closely, that story you are making begins to make itself, you meet anew the story that has been living in you.

I know I am not alone in this way of looking at the writing process. Back in the early 2000s when I was teaching at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Katherine Paterson often came by. She told us that after a certain point in drafting a novel, she feels her attention switch from generating characters and plot etc. to listening to the story that is already on the page, and shaping the book as that material dictates.

My sister Kate McGee, who is a pastel painter in Philomath, OR, is collaborating with me on illustrations for LITTLE WOLF’S FIRST HOWLING. I ran this listening idea by her. She said she comes to a point in every painting where, if she pays attention, it starts bossing her around in its effort to become what it is meant to be.

We talked about this while looking at the black and white layer I’d just painted for one of the spreads. We were both listening and paying attention to what the piece still needs. I will make the changes digitally, then email that layer to Kate so she can add the color. We are new to using Photoshop for our artwork and are swimming upstream – but how fun to work together on a project!

And it’s great to have another pair of ears to listen as we find our way through the woods.

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Final spread for Little Wolf’s First Howling, due out from Candlewick Press in 2017.

(to hear The Quiet American play Sunflower River blues on the ukulele click here)

 

 

 

 

 

TWINKLE, TWINKLE

(also posted on BooksAroundTheTable, our critique group blog)

This is a story about a search for the right word, and another search, too.

At our last critique meeting, I read my latest version of LITTLE WOLF’S FIRST HOWLING. Bonny suggested I find a new word for “twinkle” in the sentence, “They watched as the stars twinkled on and a full moon peeked over the mountain.”

I have consulted friends and Google, too, of course: blinked, winked, flickered, appeared. What is the word for that moment when a star becomes visible? Maybe blossomed? (No, a friend pointed out, that mixes the plant world and the moon’s anthropomorphic action of peeking.)

I was thinking of this “twinkled” challenge Wednesday night. All summer I have looked forward to the Perseid Meteor Showers, billed as this year’s biggest star event. Wednesday night, August 12, was supposed to be the best for viewing. The new moon would set early and the skies would be very dark. We could expect 80 to 100 shooting stars per hour. Talk about twinkling.

I imagined John and me watching this all from a mountain meadow, far away from the Seattle’s city lights. We’d be ensconced in our butterfly chairs that fold out into chaise lounges. Refreshing drinks would rest in the special cup holders that are built into the chairs’ arms. Our sweet spaniel, Izzi, would rest at our feet. It might be romantic.

So Wednesday afternoon we headed for the Cascades. Just as we cleared the tangle of city traffic, we realized we’d forgotten the special chairs. And the cooler.

At least we remembered the dog.

More challenges were, literally, on the horizon. Low clouds hung along the hills and a haze of smoke blew in from forest fires. After all this effort, would we be able to see stars at all?

• • • • •

Smoky winds sliced through the sliding doors as we stepped out on the balcony of our room in Suncadia Lodge. A smoky haze persisted after sundown but we headed out to find a dark spot away from the Lodge. We chose a driveway apron to a vacant lot and lay down on hard new asphalt to stargaze. Right away, I realized I could see the stars better without my new glasses, so I stuck them in my coat pocket. Several meteors streaked across the sky, but I was sure we’d see even more if we could find a darker spot. I talked John into walking another half mile down the barely lit road and following a string of bistro lights through the forest to the parking lot.

The skies cleared a little as we drove around looking for a dark cul de sac in the unbuilt part of the resort. We found the perfect spot, the kind of place young lovers seek on a warm summer night. Only it was on Rocking Chair Lane. We positioned the car so it blocked the one small streetlight and spread the dog’s old sleeping bag on the still-warm pavement. I folded my coat into a pillow and we lay down with Izzi between us to look at the now fully twinkling skies.

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Despite the sky not being completely black, we counted 24 shooting stars over the next hour and a half. Then a local drove by to see what we were doing and we felt self-conscious lying out there in the deserted cul-de-sac on the dog’s old sleeping bag. We packed up. That’s when I realized my new glasses were missing.

Backtrack, Backtrack. Backtrack. Every place we’d been. We combed the dark roads and trails with our cell phone flashlights. No luck. We were bummed as we went to bed, the wind still whistling through the open sliding door. Then at 3 am an alarm on the room’s refrigerator started beeping. Which was annoying until we looked outside. All was calm. The night was perfectly black, the sky sugared with so many stars that it was hard to pick out the constellations. Those stars dazzled and danced. They sparkled and salsa-ed. They even twinkled.

The next morning before I got up, John went out with Izzi. He walked back to that first driveway apron and met a man working on the gate there.

“Did you happen to see some glasses around here?”

“As a matter of fact, I have them right here in my truck,” he said. “Lucky I didn’t drive over ‘em.”

Maybe now that I have my new glasses back I will see stars in a new way and find that right word. Or maybe twinkled is enough.

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John and Izzi and the hazy Cascades.

WONDER AND WONDERING

We’re suffering here in Seattle – a record 15 days of temperatures over 80 degrees. I know this might be laughable to people in other, hotter, parts of the country, including our California cousins who don’t even break a sweat until it’s over 100.

In Sonora CA where I grew up, most summers had a week or even two over 110. We did not have air conditioning, so on those hot summer nights we’d pull rollaway beds out on the deck and sleep under the huge humming wheel of the Milky Way.

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We’d count falling stars as we fell to sleep. Mom promised that if we could say “Money, money, money,” before a star burned out, we’d be millionaires. But this effort was quickly eclipsed by the sheer wonder of the night skies. Those skies taught me Wonder, one of my favorite emotions.

As Sara Teasdale put it: “…And children’s faces looking up,/ Holding wonder like a cup.” (from Barter)

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To escape the Seattle heat yesterday, we slipped into an air conditioned theatre to see INSIDE OUT, Pixar’s brilliant new film. It combines a hero’s journey with an animated construct of how the brain functions. The outer story: eleven-year old Riley has to leave her beloved Minnesota life, including her hockey team, to move to San Francisco with her mom and dad. The ingenious inner story: through animation we to see inside Riley’s mind where the console is run by five emotions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust. We watch as these emotions govern her stream of consciousness and impact behavior. It is fascinating.

insideoutcharctrsWhy did the writers choose these five emotions from the vast possibilities? I expect they settled on Joy, Sadness, Fear, and Anger because these are the core emotions of many more subtle feelings. Disgust I think they chose for comic relief. She’s a green Mean Girl, voiced by Mindy Kaling, who peppers the dialogue with a cynical uppity point of view.

Perhaps you are familiar with the Wheel of Emotions from the Writers’ Circle? The writers of INSIDE OUT employed five of the six core emotions from this wheel, leaving out Surprise. It is interesting to see so many of the human emotions organized on this wheel — but they leave out wonder.

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Perhaps I’ll have to start a campaign. “WONDER — the emotion that sings, even on a hot sweaty day in Seattle.” I know. I know. I’ll need to come up with something snappier.

But this could be my first campaign vid: NASA’s images of the Andromeda galaxy taken by the Hubbell telescope last January. Watch it for an instant Wonder hit.

Or check out this photo of the new moon over San Francisco on the night of our grandson’s birth. To me it is just as wondrous — and speaks of wonders to come.

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p.s. Wondering if the science behind INSIDE OUT is accurate? Click here. The short answer is yes.

ALL ON BOARD

Books Around The Table

On March 22, 2015, our daughter gave birth to our first grandchild, Emmett John Luiten. I would include his photo here but our daughter hopes to keep his internet exposure to a minimum. Suffice it to say he is the most adorable baby ever.

For the past three weeks John and I have been in San Francisco to help out his parents, Noelle and Tyler. It has been a special time and we know it. Everyday Emmett wakes up a little more to the world; his beautiful blue eyes look so intently at us. Already he smiles and responds to music.

One of our jobs was to set up new shelves in the nursery. That gave me a chance to look at the small library of board books that friends and relatives have sent to the baby. Seemed like a good excuse to check in with the board book world…

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