Monday, December 26, 2011

Mount Kailas

This will probably be the last post of the year, as I'm revising a novel while also trying to get ready for the Vermont winter residency and my trip to India following that. But I wanted to end 2011 with an image.

This image.

This is Mount Kailas (or Kailash; Gang Tise in Tibetan), a rare sunlit view of the giant peak that rises to an astonishing 22,028 feet.

The picture of Kailas gilded by sunlight was sent to me by an Internet acquaintance who has my undiluted admiration for having recently been on the Kailas-Manasarovar yatra (Sanskrit for "journey" or  "pilgrimage").  Her group did the full parikrama (Sanskrit for "circumambulation") of the mountain on foot.

This part of Asia is a land of contested borders and competing claims of jurisdiction, with force and occupation ruling the day. It's also a place of great mystical significance for Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and followers of the indigenous Tibetan religion of Bön. It was probably an object of awe and worship for unknown ancient belief systems that predate any religion we know today. Hindus believe it to be the abode of Lord Shiva himself, guardian of the forces of destruction and dissolution in the universe.

And finally, it's a place in danger. Himalayan glaciers are melting at unprecedented rates in our time.

So I want to end 2011 by taking some time to look at this mountain against light and cloud and sky. Just look. And see if it doesn't somehow provide perspective.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Naomi Rose on Tashi and the Tibetan Flower Cure

Author-illustrator Naomi Rose, welcome and congratulations on your new picture book from Lee & Low, Tashi and the Tibetan Flower Cure. (Review excerpt from Booklist: "gracefully introducing Tibetan words and customs...this upbeat story provides a rare look at Tibetan American culture.")

[Uma] Your own inquiry into Tibetan wisdom and culture is important to your life. How did that inquiry lead you to the mysteries of the flower cure?

[Naomi] About 10 years ago, my father was recovering from cancer. My mother, who knew of my interest in Tibetan culture, emailed me a true story about a Tibetan man who miraculously recovered from cancer. The story was written by a hospice worker. She had tried to use the Tibetan Flower Cure to bring comfort to the Tibetan man in his final days. Instead of simply bringing him comfort, the Tibetan Flower Cure actually cured him! But it wasn't just the flowers that evoked the cure. It was the coming together of communities in support of this man's well being. The doctor was baffled about the unexpected healing. But the Tibetan man explained that the disease couldn't live in a body filled with so much love. It was such a beautiful story of the power of kindness and community, I knew I had to write it for children.

[Uma] In the end this is a story of geographies blending and merging through the connections between the generations. Talk about both those elements and how you show this blending of places and cultures in your art.

[Naomi] When I have visited the homes of Tibetan-Americans, I've seen an intriguing mixture of American and Tibetan elements. The homes generally have a special room dedicated for the most sacred items. This room is specifically for meditation, chanting, and prayer. The rest of the house is a combination of Tibetan and American culture, such as prayer flags flying in the yard next to a lawn mower, thangkas hanging above televisions, and so on. In a way, this approach blends the sacred and mundane, which I really appreciate. So I was careful to place Tibetan items in the ordinary rooms and scenes in my art.

Another aspect of blending is the dress. Some Tibetan-Amercians, especially the elders, continue to wear chupas, the traditional Tibetan clothing. Others, especially the younger generations, wear American clothes. I portrayed this in the illustrations with Popola wearing chupas, and Amala and Tashi wearing American clothes.

[Uma] Reversals drive the structure of this book: Sickness to healing, inaction to action, I could go on. I know you worked on this book over time and in many different versions, but can you tell me how you arrived at the final structure?

[Naomi] After several years of working on the story on my own and with my critique group, it finally earned some interest at Lee & Low Books. Louise May was the editor-in-chief at the time and she and I worked on the story for almost 18 months. But when she finally showed it to the editorial committee, they passed on the book. I was devastated. I filed the story far away. Then about six months later, I read a newly-released picture book from Lee and Low, written in free verse. I loved the voice. Inspired, I rewrote Tashi and the Tibetan Flower Cure in free verse, first person, present tense. I wrote the story without thinking of a publisher. I wrote it from my heart. I knew I had a good story, much better than before. I showed it to Louise May and it required only a few minor revisions before the acquisitions committee accepted it.

[Uma] Finally, can you share a recipe for solja?

[Naomi] Solja, or Tibetan Butter Tea, is definitely an acquired taste. It is especially enjoyed when living in high altitudes and freezing temperatures. Tibetans in Tibet have very elaborate ways of preparing the tea. These ways may include using butter churns and horsehair (to strain the tea). But here is a way to make it more simply.


Makes 5 to 6 cups of tea:
plain black tea (2 tea bags or 1 tbsp. of loose leaf)
¼ tsp. of salt
2 tbsp. of butter
½ cup of milk

Boil 5 to 6 cups of water. Pour two tea bags or one tbsp. of loose leaf into the boiling water and wait 2-3 minutes. Gently remove the tea bags or strain the tea leaves. Pour the tea into a large container with a lid or a blender. Then add salt, butter and milk. Shake it for 2 or 3 minutes. Serve it immediately. Enjoy!

This delicious tea will keep you warm in the winter and help you feel healthy and strong.

[Uma] Thank you Naomi. And here's another review from one of my favorite book bloggers, the BookDragon.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Cynthia Leitich Smith on Diabolical: From Literary Homage to Growing the Craft

Cynthia Leitich Smith's intelligent, quirky, robust vampire series has swirled into an industry all its own. Her Dracula-inspired quartet of prose novels in the Tantalize series includes Tantalize, Eternal, Blessed, and Diabolical, which will be released by Candlewick on Jan. 24, 2012. Tantalize: Kieren’s Story, illustrated by Ming Doyle, is now available, and the Eternal graphic novel, also to be illustrated by Doyle, is currently in production.

In addition, two short stories, “Haunted Love,” originally published in Immortal, edited by P.C. Cast and “Cat Calls,” originally published in Sideshow, edited by Deborah Noyes, are available for free download from various e-retailers.

The books and shorts are published by Candlewick Press in North America, Walker Books in the U.K., and various other publishers around the globe.

I asked Cyn:
The world of your fiction has grown from a kind of whimsical alternative Austin with lurking dangers to encompassing nothing short of heaven and hell. How has writing the Quincie P. Morris books grown you as a writer?

Here is her reply.

I credit the dark master, Abraham Stoker, for much of the past decade of my writing life. 

The first quartet of novels in the Tantalize series are a conversation with his 1897 horror classic, Dracula, which likewise features varied settings (the Carpathian Mountains, the streets of London) and an international cast (the Dutch doctor, Texas gunslinger, English lawyer, etc.). 

My first of the books is firmly set in Austin, but from there, we travel to Dallas, Chicago, a fictional small town in Michigan, the outskirts of San Antonio, north to Montpelier, Vermont; and its surrounding countryside, climaxing in a battle that literally rages from heaven to hell.

These multi-creature-verse stories are told from four points of view. A tie-in graphic novel, Tantalize: Kieren’s Story released this fall, and an Eternal graphic novel is in the works.

When I first began jotting notes in late 2000/early 2001, I had hopes of multiple books. Though many suggested there wasn’t a market for Gothic YA tales, I began writing with a super-arc in mind. Each of the books would have a beginning, middle, and end, but they would also combine to tell a larger story. My dream concept was an ambitious one—to extend Stoker’s world, starting with a pseudo-descendant (a many-times great niece) of the Texan character Quincey P. Morris and then working my way back to the root material, a demonic academy that lingers in Romanian-Hungarian folklore.

At the time, I was a long-time fantasy reader but had published only realistic, contemporary fiction.
Suddenly, I needed to learn world- and creature-building and to craft a story in which both were necessary for the protagonist’s internal and external journeys. Soon it became the protagonists’—plural—internal and external journeys, even as my world and its varied population continued to grow.
I had to consider the power of metaphor in conveying such weighty themes as alcoholism, homelessness, gender and power, sexual assault, bigotry, culture/identity, biological warfare, plague, child abuse, slavery, indentured servitude, sexual orientation, free will, the role of faith, good and evil, holy sacrifice, the nature of God, redemption, forgiveness, destiny, and grace.
You know, in a fun, occasionally funny, way that also inspired tears, while keeping the action moving, integrating compelling suspense/mystery elements, and making the occasional teenager (or YA librarian) swoon over a certain fictional guardian angel. Or two.
Meanwhile, I navigated quasi-epistolary elements, unreliable point of view, alternating point of view, juxtaposing urban/rural with high fantasy, translating from prose to graphic format, embracing the short and long form, and writing across race, region, culture, gender, orientation, nationality and species.
Worst of all, I had to learn to write love scenes—fresh, poignant, passionate love scenes that rang true and spoke to the adolescent experience. That nearly killed me.
Put mildly, the psychological and intellectual challenges have been numerous and formidable. The experience has equipped me with a toolbox of skills that I hope to carry into future projects. But my more valuable takeaway is what I learned about YA readers and my relationship to them.
I’ve learned to more seriously consider the young audience.
That’s not fashionable. You often hear writers say, “I write for myself” or “I write for people” (not merely—gasp—kids), or, though usually not so straightforwardly, “I write for acclaim.”
Don’t get me wrong. I do cater to my own inner brat (and a brat she is) and my darling readers over 18 (who generate about half my mail) and those remarkable champions/gatekeepers. I’m honored that the books have been critically well received and appreciate the importance of that in widely sharing them.
But my previous works had been for younger kids. And while I heard from a handful of grieving tweens and thoughtful Native readers in the wake of Rain Is Not My Indian Name, the vast majority of my feedback came from grown-ups.
With the Tantalize series, for the first time, I found myself presented with countless more personal interactions, such as:
a fourteen-year-old, big-city boy clinging to a tattered copy of Tantalize—the first novel he’d ever finished;
  • a pair of suburban African-American teen cousins wanting to talk to me about my choice of “black” as a color of heaven; when so often in Gothics, its only association is with evil;
  • a reader ranting (with many exclamation marks) that a girl is NOTHING!!! without a boy to love her;
  • a handful of girls writing about their physically/emotionally abusive “romantic” relationships and how Quincie’s arc inspired them to view themselves and their situations in a new light;
  • a date-rape survivor who wrote to say she’d copied an exchange at the end of Blessed and taped it to her bedroom mirror;
  • a young lesbian who wanted to know why the only gay main characters were male and adults (which is no longer the case with the upcoming release of Diabolical);
  • a reader who wrote of Miranda, “Nice to see an Asian girl pick up a battle-axe!”
  • foodies who requesting recipes from the Sanguini’s menus;
  • Ausitinites and Chicagoans thrilling to see their neighborhoods reflected in a YA book;
  • high schoolers delighted that they actually “got” the Hawthorne references (“English class was good for something!!!);
  • teens who read the novel Dracula along with Quincie, looking for clues;
  • readers literally bouncing, tearing up, or kneeling with enthusiasm;
  • and a seemingly endless array of folks (of both genders and, for that matter, all ages) swooning over the glory that is Zachary. It’s surreal to be gushed at about the sexiness of a figment of your imagination.
So now I have my audience in mind: Geeky but unpretentious young people (and those young at heart) with depth and a sense of humor. Those who’re willing to be challenged by the occasional unfamiliar literary device and/or reconsider their world view, who’re open to a hero who’s Asian or Latino or Italian-American or gay or part wereotter; and who can get behind imperfect characters who love deeply but aren’t wholly defined by their respective relationship status.
They’re avid and reluctant readers, those who love and hate genre romance, and those who adore and abhor horror novels. They reach for mystery fiction and revel in the mysterious nature of our so-called real world. A few leave unsettled, even unsatisfied, only to return months, perhaps years, later with more life experience, typically after their first real heartbreak. 
At a time when there is so much economic pressure to pander, to dumb down, to revisit without reinventing, it’s important not to underestimate the  young, not to cower in the face of the perceived market or even some teens’ ever-evolving (and occasionally appalling) priorities.

And we must be equally wary of the temptation to preen over our craft, over how we express ourselves, if it’s at the expense of saying something that truly matters to our intended audience. Art should be thrilling, satisfying, and yes, unsettling. To the reader and also to the artist. There are no safe spaces. Joyful innovation doesn't come from playing it safe. But it does spring, at least in part, from valuing its intended audience.

[Uma] Thank you Cynthia. And so to the menu. Here's the antipasto, the trailer of Diabolical. Congratulations!

Note: Cynthia is now working on Smolder, which is set in the Tantalize universe, but begins a new arc and features new protagonists, two of whom were previously introduced as secondary characters. Cynthia Leitich Smith blogs at Cynsations and is on the faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Best Endeavo(u)r

This was the first book I ever owned, and I won it.

It had been a rough year in kindergarten. I started out in one school where Anita with the pigtails stole my lunch regularly and threatened to beat me if I told. Then I moved to another school and thought I was in heaven. I loved the big pieces of paper we got to draw on and often got into trouble for using more than my allotted number of sheets.

School opened up worlds to me. One time I didn't hear the end of day bell due to being deep in conversation with a girl named Ritu about the possibility of scaling the tamarind tree. I missed the bus, and my mother had to drive all the way out from Delhi Cantonment to come and fetch me home. Come to think of it, I often lived on the fringes of reality, a little abstracted, caught up in daydreams. Their possibilities were so much more enticing than the day to day.

So when the end of year awards ceremony rolled around and came to a clacking stop, I didn't expect anything. When my name was called I sat there astonished. "Go," said my mother. "Go." In the end my father had to hold my hand and walk me up, because I was so convinced there had been some mistake.

But there it was. The Three Little Kittens, in soft colored soft-cover, kittens and mittens and mother cat and all. My own book. Mine. It said so.

I read those kittens several hundred times, from mishap to mishap. I myself had regularly lost earrings, lunch boxes, and even once a shoe.

I still have this book. It's a little moth-eaten but it has managed to hold together. The label inside reads: Prize presented to…and then my name. Underneath it says, For Best Endeavour. I don't remember what I did to earn that consolation prize. But really, as a goal, best endeavor isn't so bad. It still holds up. It's something to reach for.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Beyond Visual Literacy

There's been a lot of talk about the demise of the picture book. Parent Tracy Grant summarized the heated debate in this piece in the Washington Post. Maurice Sendak chimed in to say that the picture book is blighted by misguided notions of childhood innocence, although he admits at the same time that he hasn't read very many lately. Some of us who watched the National Book Awards streaming from New York recently were a little perturbed by celebrity writer John Lithgow's attempts to be funny. In the process of self-deprecation he managed to dismiss the entire form of the picture book by suggesting it wasn't "real."

Is it, as Karen Lotz, Candlewick publisher suggests in the NYT article that started the brouhaha, a matter of the picture book being an analog artifact in a digital age? I'm not so sure. The codex book might be analog in structure but the picture book, if we pay attention to how young children "read" it, is far from analog in application.

Adults may read it from front to back and left to right but look at this child poised to turn a page.

Left? Right? Depends? If the book topples and ends up upside down in the process, a two-year-old might continue "reading" it that way. Nothing linear about that.

Toddlers react to the whole book as an object, without privileging the words on the page. They also react to the voice and the presence of an adult reading to them. They memorize text (another skill we tend not to privilege for some odd reason) and will often catch the lazy adult reader trying to flip two pages at once. Young children will want to visit a beloved book over and over, as they define it for themselves auditorily and visually, finding comfort in prediction. And of course they will imitate the reading behaviors (or lack thereof) of the adults in their lives. In all these ways, the picture book is meant to be a multi-sensory experience.

Its future is obviously tied up with the future of the book itself. But as with hybrid cars, we haven't quite found the right combination of green, cheap, tough, and accessible, not yet. Meanwhile, the codex book with pictures continues to allow children to acquire meaning in the often ambiguous spaces between text and image, and to do so with their entire bodies, which is what young children need to do. Speculating on causation in a narrative is a very different skill from touching a screen to create it. The two are not interchangeable, nor is one better than the other. But they are different.

If we let the picture book slip away while we dither around trying to decide if the form is dead, then the thing we may be endangering is the potential of the young child's brain to take in multiple stimuli, find meaning, react with all senses at once, and thereby create the active engagement with the world that we call literacy.

Note: This post appears simultaneously on Write at Your Own Risk, the VCFA faculty blog.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

More on Audience

Yesterday's questions yielded several more opinions on audience:

Stacy DeKeyser wrote her forthcoming midgrade fantasy, The Brixen Witch, with herself as the audience:
I tried to write something I would like to read, and my favorite genre is midgrade. Also, I honestly can't gauge the reading taste of anyone else. (Though I've tried, and my editors and agent usually tell me I'm wrong. For example, I allowed myself to think of my potential audience as "boys" when rats--a lot of rats--entered the story during the first draft. Later, my editor told me that my primary audience would be girls. So what do I know?)
The book has a fair number of long sentences and big words, because that's what I like to write, and read. And because I hated it when some critiquers told me to simplify if I wanted to sell it, and I wanted to prove them wrong. (Lots of what I accomplish in writing is out of spite, I have come to realize.)
Kimberley Griffiths Little started writing Circle of Secrets on deadline:
I turn a new book in to my editor within a 6-8 week period. A book I had barely begun to think about, let alone write. I had just launched The Healing Spell and hadn't received any of those first, wonderful fan letters from kids around the country who were begging for another book like it, so I was writing this story just for me, which is how every story begins. Although this time my editor was hoping for a beautiful, poignant family story with a vulnerable, troubled girl like The Healing Spell contained. The pressure was on in spades! But when I say I was writing this book for myself, I am literally talking about the stories I love to read - stories I loved to read when I was 9-13 years old and stories I still love to read and never stopped reading even when I became an official grown-up.

Since I love weaving my character's relationships together in various emotional ways, as well as concocting a plot with some suspense and twists - I'm still thinking about that child reader in me, but I also start thinking about the readers out there who want an exciting story with surprises....Of course, this usually doesn't occur until the first draft is completed. Before that I'm too worried about actually getting the story some sort of coherent and chronological sense. During my second and third drafts I'm honing the depth of the characters and making sure all the little connections and surprises in the plot works, and fixing holes and inconsistencies, etc. During revisions and the production work with my editor, I start really dreaming about the kids out there who (I hope!) are going to connect with the book. Now that Circle of Secrets  has launched, it's happening: letters are coming in from adult readers who tell me the story describes their own feelings and situation when they were kids as well as kid readers who love the small, secret connections within the story. Once the book is out in the world, hearing that kind of marvelous feedback makes me feel like the readers and I are connected in a very special, magical way.
Bonus: Book trailer, Circle of Secrets:

Barbara Brooks Wallace talks about how readers' tastes can change, recalling two of her books, Claudia and Peppermints in the Parlor. More about Peppermints in this video interview with Bobbie:
...a lady in our church informed me that her daughter "hated" Claudia. I simply told her that everybody doesn't like everything, and one had to understand and accept that, and one shouldn't be angered by hearing an opinion, even though negative. A year later, that same woman, with girl in tow, pushed her toward me after church. "I just loved Claudia!" said the child. Well, a year older and better able to understand what Claudia was going through then. This happens often. But I never gave a thought to who might or might not like the story when I wrote it.

And, of course, there's Peppermints in the Parlor. Even grown-ups have read and told me that they enjoyed, even loved, the story. As usual, I never gave a thought to who might read it or like it when I was writing it. I simply sailed around the moon when Jim Trelease and others referred to it as "Dickensian"! Charles hero! I wonder if he might have liked it?
Ah, yes, the conversation of books. Perhaps that's the real reason we write, because we need to talk back to books we have loved or loathed, resented or revered.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Interview Wednesday Portal Right Here Today on WWBT

The magic window to today's Interview Wednesday posts on Kidlitosphere is right here on Writing With a Broken Tusk.

First up, Holly Thompson talks about food, influence, life in Japan, operating in two cultures, and more on Gathering Books.

On Playing By the Book, Victoria Griffith, author of The Fabulous Flying Machines of Alberto Santos Dumont, talks to Zoe about her journalism background, research, and books that inspire her.

A five-way interview with Candlewick authors Paul Janeczko and Ruth Thomson, editors, and a publicist on The Whole Megillah, the writer's resource for Jewish-themed books.

Watch for additional interview links during the day.

This post itself will be an all-day group interview in response to a single question. Years ago, Mem Fox wrote a piece in Bookbird journal titled "For Whom Do We Write?" It can also be found in variant grammatical mode under the title, "So Who Are We Writing For?" In it she talked about sending all potential readers out of the room when you write a book--silencing all those possible voices that hover around the writer, seeking to influence the work. She says only then can she allow the work itself to take shape. Audience has always been of interest to writers, perhaps most of all to those whose work is read by young readers. Maurice Sendak once used to hate being called a children's writer. 

I'm asking a group of children's and YA writers to think of one of their books--any one--as they answer these two questions:
  1. Who was your audience when you wrote this book? 
  2. At what stage in the life of the work in progress did you allow that potential audience into your mind?
Kathi Appelt wrote The Underneath over the span of three years. She writes:
My original audience was a boy, someone who resembled my own son when he was around thirteen or fourteen years old. It was an incident that occurred with him that gave me the impetus for the story to begin with. So I had him in the back of my mind over the course of writing, but I confess that as I got deeper into the story, I actually lost track of any audience at all. It felt as though I was writing for the story itself and the characters in the story, as if they were the only “audience” that mattered. I kept writing and writing and writing until it seemed like I got the characters’ stories right within the context of the bigger story. I was writing to find the stories that my characters had to show me. It seems like the intended audience was the first and then the last thing that I kept in mind.
Tom Birdseye's most recent novel, Storm Mountain (trailer here) began on a the 41-mile Timberline Trail that circles Mt. Hood, the highest mountain in Oregon. He describes the experience:
Halfway around, gazing up at yet another stunning view of the iconic peak, it suddenly occurred to me that although I loved mountains and scaling them, I had, in fact, never written anything with a climbing focus. What was with that? Why not combine two of my passions -- writing and the alpine realm? It was a head-slapping moment, and in it a book idea was born. I'll write a middle-grade adventure story, I declared, set in the high Cascades. So the audience, middle grade readers, was set in my mind very quickly. 
It wasn't until I was well into the first draft that it began to dawn on me that this wasn't just a climbing adventure, it was also a story about the grief that the protagonist, Cat, feels at the loss of her father. My father died when I was young. I never really processed his passing -- I didn't know how -- and instead pushed the pain aside and moved on with my life. Writing Storm Mountain became a conduit for finally dealing with a scarred-over wound. In the end it was a much for an audience of one -- me -- as it was for kids.
Shutta Crum comments on the differences in audience awareness between novels and picture books. Her picture book, Mine! just made School Library Journal's list of Best Books of 2011.
I'd hazard a guess that most writers don't think of a particular audience--other than themselves--when they are first creating. I don't. Sometimes I don't even start to think about the audience until my editor makes me think about it. At some point, when a novel is ready to submit, I simply give it over to my agent/editor. I always figure that a good book will find its audience. It is not until after the editor has her hands on it that I worry about word choice, white space, sentence length, etc., all those kinds of things that one worries about with an audience of a particular age. The one exception to this, I find, is when I am working on a picture book for the very young, such as Mine! (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011). For that book my editor challenged me to write for the very youngest of audiences. So I had my audience firmly in mind. The book ended up only having 10 1/2 words.
When Sharon Darrow was writing her YA novel Trash, she thought the audience might be the same people who read The Painters of Lexieville because they had some characters and settings in common. But, she says:
I found that Trash had more boy readers than Painters did, at least I got more mail from boys. At first I thought that might be because of the graffiti writing in it, but later I learned that the boys liked the poetry, too. Just about all the readers who wrote to me mentioned liking the white space on the page.

I thought a lot more about the audience when I was writing Trash than when I was writing Painters, partly because I was thinking about how the words looked on the page, almost as if that were a part of the graphic aspect of the book and I was hoping my audience would enjoy that.

When I was writing Painters, I felt like I was the audience for the character as she 'told' me her story, then when I was revising the words for the readers so that they might be able to 'hear' her voice, I thought about how words sound when spoken and about how feelings come through the sounds a voice gives to words. I hoped my audience would be able to experience Pert's voice in a way similar to the way it had come to me, except I wanted the reader to feel much more like she or he were living the story along with Pert as it happened. The revisions were for my imagined young teen-aged reader, mostly girls I thought, but, in a way, I imagined Pert herself reading and deciding if I'd done a good job writing her story!
Jane Kurtz has written two picture books with her brother, Only a Pigeon (soon to have a new edition with a new title, Pigeon Boys of Ethiopia) and Water Hole Waiting. They've also worked on a novel together. Here's Jane's take on audience and co-authorship:
We've also worked on a novel together. One of the interesting things that happens with a co-author is that we both get audience reaction right away...from each other! I will think some word or sentence is funny or apt or touching or just right in some other way, only to discover that it falls flat for Chris--and vice versa. We argue for our choices. Often we talk about audience as part of that because it's useless to say, "Well, I'm doing this because it pleases ME" if it doesn't please the other person. With this new edition of Only a Pigeon, we had the advantage of having tried our story with lots of actual elementary aged kids so we talked about what confused or frustrated or interested or amused kids as we revised. I kind of wish I could now re-do all my books.
Julie Larios says she wrote her second picture book, Have You Ever Done That? in response to a prompt at a small writing workshop conducted at the home of her friend and colleague Laura Kvasnosky:
As a general target audience, I had in mind young children who have hesitated when asked to do something brave, as a way to suggest that courage often comes in small packages and doesn't look like what we think it's going to look like. I knew right away that what I had to say was for a young audience, picture book age, because I imagined it as a series of questions that could be talked over at bedtime.  I love questions, no matter what the age of the audience, and the read-aloud moments before bed, when a parent lingers and talks over what's been read, those feel especially important to me. Why not put the kind of questions out there that can be pondered while falling asleep? And if I'm going to be perfectly honest, I'll admit that the specific target audience was actually the child I was at about four years old, staying with my family at the beach cabin my grandparents built. One hot summer night, I was granted the special privilege of sleeping outside on the open porch; I could hear the waves and see the moon and stars. It should have been Heaven, but I was terrified. So I wrote the book for the little girl I was that night, as a way of holding her hand across the years and telling her it would be alright. And I knew from the moment I had the idea - before a word was ever written - who the audience was. 
David Lubar (Attack of the Vampire Weenies and Other Warped and Creepy Tales--see this great review on A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy)says:
I am going to answer the question by explaining that I have no answer. (So let's call this a meta-answer.) Perhaps it marks me as a mutant, curmudgeon, or semi-solipsist, but I generally write with no audience in mind. I have a story to tell. It seizes me, and I set out to write it. The only time an imagined audience becomes an issue is when I get sidetracked by worrying that some group, such as the award givers, or the fans of whatever genre my last book fell into, will not like my current work. Then, I have to heave that audience from my mind and get back to telling a story. That approach seems to be working out pretty well, so far. 
Leda Schubert admits to having trouble with the idea of audience when she wrote Ballet of the Elephants:
I think, as many writers seem to think, that I write for myself. I become passionate about something and have to get it down on the page. Then I try to figure out what I've got. With Ballet of the Elephants, for example, I didn't know what I would find when I began to do what would turn out to be months of research. It took a very long time to figure out how to tell the story in a way that might make sense for children, knitting together disparate elements into a whole. When I realized the story was in the performance itself--in the coming together of all these geniuses (including Modoc, the elephant and prima ballerina)--I began to think about the child reader. I'm still not entirely positive that it's a children's book, and I always promise myself to do better next time. With my three newer books, Reading to Peanut, The Princess of Borscht, and Feeding the Sheep, I began with the idea of the child.
Keep coming back, audience! There may be more.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Barbara Brooks Wallace on editor Jean Karl

Ever since I read Dear Genius, Leonard Marcus's collection of correspondence between Harper and Row editor Ursula Nordstrom and her authors and illustrators, I've been intrigued by the experiences of writers, a few of whom I'm lucky enough to know, who got to work with some of the greatest editors in children's publishing. It seems to me that when I talk to Eleanor Schick, who worked with Ursula herself, I can in some way touch that experience. Vicariously, some semblance of it becomes a part of my narrative as well. In our time, when things are changing more rapidly than ever before, it seems important to me that we acknowledge our links with these editors who left their stamp on the field. Without them, somehow, we would collectively be diminished.

Jean Karl, founding editor at what is today Atheneum Books for Young Readers (one of my publishers) was one such.

When I was in the Washington DC area in September, I was lucky enough to visit for a while with my friend Barbara Brooks Wallace. Jean was Bobbie's editor. In an editorial letter, she described Bobbie's middle grade novel, Peppermints in the Parlor, as "marvelously funny" and "a true children's Gothic." Bobbie went on to win two Edgar Awards for The Twin in the Tavern and Sparrows in the Scullery. Thirty-one years after its publication, Peppermints is still in print.

In this brief video, Bobbie tells me about the process of submitting Peppermints in the Parlor to Jean Karl, and hearing about its acceptance.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Jeanne Walker Harvey on My Hands Sing the Blues

My Hands Sing the Blues by Jeanne Walker Harvey, from Marshall Cavendish (a publishing house with vision, judging by just a few recent and backlisted titles) is a childhood biography of artist Romare Bearden. Jeanne has recently taken her picture book on the road. She's been to The Mint Museum Uptown in Charlotte, North Carolina, which has been hosting a Romare Bearden retrospective in honor of the centennial of the artist's birth. She was the featured speaker at Bearden Family Fun Day, when children had a chance to do Bearden inspired collages.

In an e-mail message to me Jeanne wrote, "Such fun! And, it was so exciting for me to be talking...where my book takes place -- his birthplace! I met such nice people, including those at the Harvey Gantt Center for African American Culture which is also hosting a Bearden exhibit. And I spoke at the Family Day at the SFMOMA so I've gotten to be at the two places most important to me for this book."

[Uma] Congratulations, Jeanne. As someone who saw this work in manuscript, a long time before it found its voice and current form, I'm delighted to see it in print. (Note to anyone who doubts the power of e-mail: Jeanne and I have never met in person, yet our creative lives connected indelibly over this work!) I'm so pleased to be talking to you now about My Hands Sing the Blues. So, to start, why Romare Bearden, and why a picture book? Talk about how this project came to be.

[Jeanne] I'm a docent at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and a number of years ago I gave tours to school groups of an exhibit organized by The National Gallery of Romare Bearden's amazing art. The students and I LOVED his art, especially his huge collages, and the stories they tell about himself and his African American heritage. I realized I wanted to write a book about how the people, places and experiences in his childhood, specifically Charlotte, North Carolina, influenced his art. I felt this book had to be a picture book because the story is all about the creation of visual art, and I could not be more thrilled by the incredible illustrations Elizabeth Zunon created for this book. I feel magic happens with a picture book -- something incredibly special happens when the illustrations and words are joined.

[Uma] What's one thing you learned about yourself while writing this book?

[Jeanne] I learned that I need to trust my instinct about how a story should be written, even it's outside my comfort zone. I wrote this book in a loose blues format (three line stanzas with end rhymes and repeating phrases) which was totally new to me. I felt that the story I wanted to tell about Romare Bearden needed to be told in this format because of his passion for jazz and blues music. He felt that the way he created his paintings, his collages, was inspired by the give and take, the improvisation of jazz music.

[Uma] What's one thing you learned about writing?

[Jeanne] Trust the writing process/journey because you never know what will happen! I learned to trust that I'll get past the pain of those first "drafty drafts" as you call them.

[Uma] That's right. I won't use the Anne Lamott term, not because I'm squeamish but because I don't believe a draft should be quite so easily dismissed. A first draft contains the spirit that made me want to do the work in the first place, so why should disparaging it make me feel more competent? Drafty I can live with. [Stepping off soapbox...]

[Jeanne] I was enrolled in your online writing course in 2007 with Writers Workshop when I hit this (drafty) phase. I had submitted an early version of this book to the group. But then I reread it and felt remorse that I had let the piece out into public, even though it was a supportive group of writers. I asked you if I could withdraw the piece. You said, hold on. You referred me to your article which so articulately set forth the phases of the writing process:
  • read, exult
  • reread, despair
Then you shared one of your tips from your wonderful "20 writing tips that I wish I'd heard 20 years ago": "The beginning is often not what you think it is." You suggested that I begin the book with a line from the middle of my text, "Snip a square of color" which ultimately became "I snip a patch of color." That truly made the difference. My focus became more about Bearden's connections to his childhood, and less about his New York City life as an adult. I was then able to read and absorb the class comments, and move forward.

The last line of my book is what I've ultimately learned about writing and the creative process: "When I put a beat of color on an empty canvas, I never know what's coming down the track." That is, as long as I remember to stick with it and believe in the process!

[Uma] It's true, isn't it, of writing as of any other kind of art? Congratulations on a beautiful book.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Interview on KSJD, Dry Land Community Radio

I meant to post this earlier but it got brushed aside by all the travel.

Here's my September 2011 interview with Danielle Desruisseaux on All Lit Up, KSJD Radio in Cortez, Colorado, whose fall membership drive is currently under way.

The brown and white object in the sign, I'm told on good authority, is a pinto bean.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Process Talk: Martha Alderson, Plot Whisperer

For more than fifteen years, Martha Alderson has worked with hundreds of writers in sold-out plot workshops, retreats, and plot consultations. Her clients include bestselling writers, New York editors, and Hollywood movie directors. She lives in Santa Cruz, CA. Follow her blog, workshops, videos, or follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

I consulted with Martha  some years ago over a work in progress that was in danger of stalling and possibly fizzling away. The novel has ended up ceding room to other work that was closer to being developed, but I learned a lot from the interaction I had with Martha. I learned to pay attention to the shape and energy of a story. I learned to nudge parts of my writing mind that didn't always want to cooperate. I learned to push my vision for my story to the next level. And perhaps most important of all, I learned to look beyond the words on the page to the story that ignited those words in the first place.

I'm happy to welcome Martha to WWBT now to talk about her new book, The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master. More links to Martha's blog tour on her blog, Plot Whisperer for Writers and Readers.

[Uma] The Plot Whisperer is a terrific title for your book and an intriguing role for you to take on in your work. It seems to me that you're after the Theory of Everything as far as fiction writing is concerned. What led you to this intersection of working with story and writers?

[Martha] I observed first-hand how people learn from working with children who had speech, language, and learning disability in an earlier profession. When I started working with writers in plot workshops, I gained a deeper insight into the process writers go through writing a story from the beginning to the end.

[Uma] Martha maybe that's why we connected! I was also in counseling and special ed before I came home to writing. What was that insight?

[Martha] Along the way, I discovered the two main types of writers – plotters versus those writers who write with little or no advanced planning. I was relieved to understand why some writers love the plot and structure work I share while other writers resist with dagger eyes when asked to learn the same information.

Beneath all of it, however, I find that every writer goes through the same trials and tribulations when crafting something out of nothing. The more writers I work with the more easily and clearly I spot the universality in everyone’s journey.

[Uma] Of course. I see that too, the more I teach.

[Martha] That writers can learn how to craft a successful story by studying the Universal Story and, at the very same time, learn more about themselves delights me.

[Uma] And me. I'm fascinated as well with what you call the ebb and flow of energy in a work. Most of us look for this energy in the words on the page. You help writers find it in something underneath the words, maybe even something that hasn't been developed yet. Talk about that process and how this book breaks it down for a reader.

[Martha] Writers, especially right-brained, highly creative, write by the seat of your pants-type writers, often get lost in the beauty of their prose and end up boxed into a corner where their story lacks fullness and refuses to come to completion. When these same writers replace resistance with an openness to step away from the words they write, they learn to see new and for them difficult concepts and how those concepts translate not only into the development of their story but into their own life too. 

Before long, all writers find the Universal Story’s energetic pattern becomes like a life raft, saving you from drowning in all the words you write.

[Uma] What appeals to me in this book is that you're offering a set of tools and a way of thinking, and not a formula. How much variation have you seen in how people use your ideas and suggestions and adapt them to their own needs?

[Martha] The ideas and suggestions morph with every single writer who uses them because writers not only adapt the ideas to their own needs but also because a writer is able only to grasp and then use in their own writing the plot and Universal Story concepts they are developmentally ready to grasp.

The more you write, the more new skills you develop which open you up in readiness to grasp yet more new concepts. That readiness grows and changes as you grow as a writer.

[Uma] A subtitle in your chapter on antagonists reads, "Never repeat, deepen." It's something I've had to remind myself in revision. How can writers train themselves not only to recognize patterns when they show up but to intensify them incrementally?

[Martha] I suggest using what I call a Scene Tracker. It’s a template or worksheet that allows you to plot out the seven essential elements in every scene you write. To analyze scenes at a thematic level before you have written a draft or two is usually premature. Far better is to wait until you better understand the deeper meaning of your piece. Then, stand back and analyze each scene for thematic elements which allows you to see where they show up now and where they could be inserted to create the most pleasing patterns for the reader and for the greatest good of the story.

[Uma] Your book promises nothing short of transformation, not just of the work but of the writer. Talk about that.

[Martha] I’ve been fascinated with energy for most of my adult life, which has lead me to lots of insights into the deeper level of life itself.

I have always loved stories of transformation, of ordinary people or characters confronted by extraordinary circumstances and not only overcoming but excelling in the face of fear and even death.

Transformation is part of the nature of life as all of us evolve and change. The changes we undergo sends out ripples of energy that touch and transform those lives around us.

Thank you, Uma. I remember hosting a blog stop on your blog tour for your picture book Out of the Way! Out of the Way! (which I love!). I had such fun that day interacting with and supporting a writer I love and respect. Thank you for returning the favor.

[Uma] Thank you Martha, it's my delight. Good plotting to you and here's to many more transformative moments!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Two Icons: A Celebration and a Loss

Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth with illustrations by Jules Feiffer, turns 50 this year. I didn't read it until I was an adult, although it was published the year I turned five. It's a tour de force filled with wit and whimsy, riddled with wordplay, light and airy yet deeply satisfying. Monica Edinger interviews Leonard Marcus on the publication of the 50th anniversary edition. On the NPR site, Norton Juster writes about "My Accidental Masterpiece."

An equally iconic picture book is The Shrinking of Treehorn. Its deadpan quirkiness and undeterred little character carry the day. The trilogy edition with its two sequels, Treehorn's Treasure and Treehorn's Wish, is a cheerful, chubby affair, complete with Edward Gorey's surreal illustrations. On Monday morning, or perhaps on Sunday night, Florence Parry Heide died at the age of 92. In the Treehorn books and her many others, she leaves joy behind in the world. Hear her voice spring to life in this interview on Curious Pages, the idiosyncratic blog that recommends "inappropriate books for kids."

Hurray for The Phantom Tollbooth and hurray, hurray for Florence Parry Heide.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Connections: California Research and IBBY Regional

I'm back from a physically and emotionally exhausting and at the same time an oddly energizing trip to San Francisco, Yuba City, and Marysville, California, with the 9th IBBY Regional Conference in Fresno on the heels of all that travel.

Here is what I've learned about researching the historical background for my fiction related to a very particular period and the cultural fusion of a very particular community:
  1. I pursued all possible sources of information and didn't know until very close to the trip that I'd find the ones I truly needed. For me, this research, much like writing itself, was an act of trust.
  2. I needed to find many perspectives on a single event, story, period, so that triangulation could give me a fuller picture, with greater depth.
  3. I'm very glad I read those many perspectives over a period of nearly three years before I talked to anyone who could be considered a primary source.
  4. Generous, giving people showed up along the way to help me. Trusting the process paid off.
  5. Resources (maps, books, phone books, photographs, and more) showed up to give me answers to questions I hadn't even thought to ask.
  6. I realized I would not know who the right people were to speak to until I'd found them.
  7. When I'd found them, I realized I needed to toss my notes and my prepared questions and just practice the fine art of listening.

Thank you to Sharon Levin for getting me to Fresno and helping me make the transition from research to conference mode!

The 9th IBBY Regional Conference (sponsored by USBBY: the theme was "Peace the World Together With Children's Books") was chock full of inspiration, connections, and marvelous conversations about the rich international world of children's books.

High points for me included:
And now back to breathing for a while, and then to work. But for now, I'm filled with gratitude for the wealth of material this trip has yielded me. And gratitude as well that even in a world where life can be daunting and peace is still a faraway dream, I am able to do the work that I love.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Debby Dahl Edwardson on Names, History, and Novel Structure

Last week I raced through Debby Edwardson’s novel, My Name is Not Easy, consuming it in one big gulp! Her writing is beautiful, touching and true to the hearts of her characters. Quite apart from the importance of this story, and how needed it is in the world, the book appears deceptively simple, then gets you in the jugular when you’re not expecting it.

And now we have the incredible news that My Name is Not Easy is a National Book Award finalist. Congratulations, Debby!

[Uma] As someone whose name many people "choke crackers" I'm fascinated by the issues raised by names and naming in your book. Talk about why names matter and how the claiming of a name can shape a person. How and why does this resonate for you?

[Debby] In order to explain why this issue resonates with me, I have to explain it from an Iñupiaq perspective because this is where I live and it’s where the book is rooted. In the Iñupiaq belief, a person’s name has a spirit of its own and that spirit travels from person to person such that when you name a child after someone—and you always do—you are essentially bringing the namesake back to life.  In this way, an Iñupiaq name implies an additional level of kinship, serving to extend one’s family ties. If I name my daughter after your grandmother, for example, she becomes your grandmother and you will even call her grandmother, sometimes, recognizing the kinship. From this perspective, naming is a very serious matter, so serious that I felt compelled to put a disclaimer in my first book, Blessing’s Bead, explaining, essentially, that there is no such thing as a fictional Iñupiaq name because all Iñupiaq names come with their own history and their own kinship. All the names I use in my books are either family names or invented names—because the use a person’s name is a very serious thing. You can’t just say, “Oh I like the sound of that name, I think I’ll use it.”

This is culturally specific, of course, but actually, that’s the point: names have a significance specific to specific groups of people. So when you’re speaking of a people who have been forced, throughout their schooling, to leave their cultures and their names at the schoolhouse door, and when the people in question, believe that a name has a spirit or soul attached to it, then the act reclaiming one’s name becomes both spiritual and revolutionary.
I love to watch the way growing numbers of young Inupiat are reasserting their right to their Iñupiaq names, by the way, and I suspect it’s a global movement. My oldest daughter’s husband is Tamil and they have never used their English names with each other. My granddaughter doesn’t have an English name—she has an Iñupiaq name and a Tamil name and nobody is worrying about how the world will react to this. The world will just have to adjust! That’s the new order—and it’s a very promising one, I think.

[Uma] I love that, Debby. Alaska and Tamilnadu, bound by names! Let’s talk about history. My Name is Not Easy spans the period from 1960 through 1964. What's the history that made you choose this time?

[Debby] The easy answer is that this book is based on a true story, the story of my husband’s experiences at a parochial boarding school in Alaska, and these are the years he was there. And of course I was a child of sixties, too, so it resonates with me. But the real answer, I think, is that this was an era of political awakening, nationwide, and My Name is Not Easy is essentially a political coming of age story. The students at Sacred Heart are coming of age in a situation that is difficult and painful in many respects but it’s also one that will prepare them to play a lead role in securing the future of their peoples.

As I said in my Author’s Note: “students similar to the students of Sacred Heart became leaders in their home communities—state legislators, city mayors, and tribal presidents. These people lobbied for change in Washington, D.C., and united their tribes to speak forcefully with one voice through the Alaska Federation of Natives, the organization that was instrumental in securing passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA).”

I’m not writing about ANCSA (which returned 40 million acres of Alaskan land to Native ownership, paying a cash settlement of $900 billion for lands lost) and I am not writing the story of the young Alaskan Native leaders, all in their early twenties, who in 1968 successfully stood up to the most powerful political forces on the planet and beat them. But the truth is that all of the leaders who fought the land claims battle in Alaska were boarding school alumni and this is their story. If you focus in on it,  My Name is Not Easy is the story of a group of young people from diverse tribes who came together and created family. But if you pull the lens out a bit, you see a generation on the cusp of a political awakening that shook Alaska to its core.

[Uma] The era of boarding schools is such a painful one. Have you heard from people whose stories may find echoes here?  Why is it important for us to pass on the remembering of such wrongs to the next generation?

[Debby] Other than my husband and fellow Alaskan writer William L. Iååiagruk Hensley, who wrote a blurb for the book, I have not heard from the people whose experiences might find echoes in these stories. The book is on backorder right now, so most of them haven’t had a chance to read it. In a way, though, I think I’ve already answered why it’s important to remember this history. Willie—who incidentally was one of the leaders of the land claims movement —said it very well in his blurb, when he kindly referred to the book as “an excellent work of fiction with important truths to be remembered.”

Some of the truths, like the ones mentioned above, are empowering, but others are very painful. The boy at the end of the book who can understand and hear his language, clear as birdsong,  but will never again speak it, is my husband. And as I was writing this book, our daughter, Naÿinaaq, was making a documentary entitled Nipaa Iøitqusipta—The Voice of Our Spirit, which examines the decline of the Inupiaq language. It’s a very painful subject for my daughter’s generation. Taqnak Rexford, one of her peers, voiced it elequently on Facebook recently:
I am Iñupiaq, and I live most of this lifetime without my language and sometimes that pain becomes too much to carry. Most often I’m not even aware I carry that energy around in me, but sometimes it leaves me in deep, almost violent waves of tears. These are ancestral tears. I am absolutely positive it’s not just me crying, it’s all of my relatives who have passed away who are witnessing our younger generations' lives without their language. This is a collective and generational weeping.”
This younger generation has grown up understanding that they don’t have the language because their parents and grandparents were punished for using it—but in a very real sense, they don’t really understand what this means because they weren’t there and they haven’t felt, on a purely visceral level, what it means. Fiction can take them there and let them experience it and through experiencing it, they can understand and through understanding they can heal.... 

For non Native readers, these stories are important because they allow us to bear witness. We cannot change what happened and we cannot fix it but we can bear a portion of the pain and in doing so we strengthen our own humanity and increase our understanding of what it means to be human.

I know this from personal experience. As a child growing up in Minnesota, I lived in a community that had a sizable Jewish population. Because it was the story of my friends and classmates, the Holocaust became a shared story for me, one I internalized in ways that to this day affect me in profoundly. If I can effect that same experience for the readers of my book, I will have done my job as a writer.
[Uma] What were the challenges of writing in the shifting viewpoints you adopted for this book?

[Debby] I wrote this book as my creative thesis when I was a student in the Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. I started it with a blank page on day one and when I was asked, at that time, to talk about how I planned to tell this story, I said, with absolutely no forethought, that I was going to tell it in multiple voices.

It was an obvious choice, of course. It’s a communal story—a multi-tribe story—so the need to tell it in multiple voices seemed almost a given. There are many indigenous tribes in this country with cultures that are in many ways very different from one another but one striking commonality is that indigenous peoples tend to put the needs of the community above the needs of the individual, thinking “we” more often than “I.” It’s interesting, though, that I started this telling as first person present tense moving back and forth from character to character—interesting, because this is hardly the equivalent of the indigenous “we” voice.  And it resulted in a first draft that was huge and rather shapeless.

After much groping and fumbling around in the dark, my final advisor—Marion Dane Bauer—suggested that I try telling it as linked stories. This gave me the freedom to play with it and allow it to become what it wanted to become—a novel told in stories, I guess. As soon as I let it out of its forced container, it seemed to develop in a fairly organic manner, moving from first person accounts in the beginning to multi-voice omniscient accounts, near the end. This seemed to fit. It was a long journey, but one which I thoroughly enjoyed.

[Uma] And one that has brought you well deserved recognition, Debby. Thank you so much for talking to me on Writing With A Broken Tusk.

2009 Cynsations interview with Debby Edwardson.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

National Book Awards 2011

It is not my scheduled day to post on Write At Your Own Risk but hey! This is enough reason to shout out. Look at the National Book Awards finalist announcements! Just look--one faculty finalist and two-count-em-two finalists who are VCFA grads from our own MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

Congratulations to all the finalists: Franny Billingsley, Debby Dahl Edwardson, Thanhha Lai, Lauren Myracle, and Gary D. Schmidt.

Friday, October 07, 2011

VAQ, or Very Annoying Question

If you're a children's writer, you occasionally (or perhaps not so occasionally) get asked this VAQ (Very Annoying Question): So...when are you going to write a novel for grownups?

Children, I might add, never ask me this. Only a certain kind of adult, the kind who look down upon children for R2C2E (Reasons Too Complicated To Explain)*.
To them I say, just look at the letters I get from children. Just look. They are voiced, genuine, no pretensions. They are illustrated! Does it get better than this?

A letter I received in yesterday's mail read:

" I want to kno. Did you always write from wen you were little and how did you now how?"

Need I say more? Children are as real as anyone else, perhaps more so. They are the finest of audiences.

They are us, because like it or not, we grownups still carry around remnants of our own younger selves, like so many backup copies waiting to be accessed when we need them. Sometimes those are our genuine selves, bursting with questions, seething with just anger, or filled with possibility.

Why on earth would I want to write for anyone else? Especially people who ask those VAQ's.

And lest anyone think this acknowledgment of the young is a sentimental affectation of our times, here's something about child artists of prehistory from NPR's 13.7 Cosmos and Culture Blog. As a former child wall-writer, I find this rethinking of prehistory exciting--if overdue.

*anyone get the Haroun reference?

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Dorje's Stripes by Anshumani Ruddra

The Bengal tiger is a gravely endangered species, its population estimated at fewer than 2,500 animals and dwindling at an alarming rate. How do we bear witness to such a tragic fact about our world? Is there any hope at all?

Yet to come*, an interview with Anshumani Ruddra, author of the glorious picture book Dorje's Stripes, published by Karadi Tales in India and now available in North America from Kane Miller.

*or maybe not. I sent those questions weeks ago and the writer hasn't replied yet (as of today, October 26, 2011). So maybe what's here is it for Dorje's Stripes.

Touching Silence

Essayist Reg Saner says, in Reaching Keet Seel, his collection of reflections on the Colorado Plateau, "Mountains echo whatever you tell them, but desert space is always a listener, its only voice a quiet so unbroken it hushes you, thereby making you fit to enter in."

Some days it seems as if I'm being badgered by voices, all kinds of voices telling me all the things I ought to be doing, all the things I should have done already, all the hundreds of ways I'm falling behind. This is not a frame of mind conducive to entering into real spaces, let alone fictional ones. Listen to all the voices and it's likely I'll begin to feel the way I do when I hear about symptoms of some rare disease--they all sound familiar and they all sound so final, so impossible to argue with!

The desert rescues me at such times. It gives me sky and 360 degrees of horizon, and silence.

But it seems to me that I ought to be able to recreate that for myself, an interior space that can be summoned up when the voices of reality become too loud and insistent, when the work demands quiet, to allow those other fictional voices to make themselves heard. It doesn't matter how. Walking, exercise, music, daydreaming, gardening. Whatever it takes. The rituals might change from one person to another, or even with the passage of time. But they matter because the ability to touch silence matters in the life of a writer.

Autopost from Write At Your Own Risk, the VCFA faculty blog.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Beyond the Blue River by B. Vinayan

When Tulika Books editor Radhika Menon first told me about this novel, I must admit to having been slightly dubious. At least in part, this reaction was to the protagonist of Beyond the Blue River, Grace, who is not human.  Nothing against non-human protagonists, but she's not even animal.

Mineral? You'd be closer. Grace is an autorickshaw!

Yes, that's right. One of those little cabs mounted on a sputtering engine that serve as transport vehicles all over the Indian subcontinent and parts of southeast Asia. Known variously as autos, scooters, autorickshaws, phat-phatti, tuk-tuk....

"An autorickshaw?" I said.

"Read it," she replied. "I would love to know what you think."

I did read it.

Ten pages in, I still wasn't sure. By page 20, I was murmuring, "Hmm..." and by the time I hit page 23, the close, careful, funny language of Grace and her autorickshaw buddy Rani was creating a sort of comfortable internal hum in my mind. Oddly, the point of view was starting to feel credible, in this eccentric, Yellow-Submarine-reminiscent world painted by Vinayan with unmistakably Indian tints.

While it took me 20-plus pages to suspend disbelief, that could have just been my adult mind at work. I suspect that as a 10- or 12-year-old, I'd have lapped this up. Even now, adult skepticism and all, I found much to love, to be amused by, and to linger over, all of it aided by big helpings of wonder.

A tune hummed by Guru, her driver, is what sends Grace off on her journey. The journey itself is replete with marvelous landscapes. A truck at the seventh milestone is a kind of mentor figure. A mountain is endowed with breath and rocky shoulders. And then there's the legendary Blue River itself.

Even the antagonist is a worthy one--Karuth Aarg is an embodiment of the power of creation itself, born of a flame reminiscent of the Big Bang. From the wind walls to the Tweedledum-Tweedledee figures of the Itsians to the etceteras ("extremely tiny creatures"), the quirky inhabitants of this world seem set against the cosmology of our own. It all somehow finds expression through the imaginings and longings, and eventual awakening, of a small and lovable machine. Yes, Grace the autorickshaw whose mineralness initially gave me pause. By the end of it, I was prepared to love her unconditionally.

I know. It sounds crazy, and it is. But it all works in a weird way. I think it works because the original fantasy in this book comes right out of a particular place with its very specific sense of relationships and frictions, rights, wrongs, and pressures. Beyond the Blue River is a gentle, odd, engaging story about "the whole wide world, and, who knows, maybe even everything beyond it."