Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Why do I Write for Children?

     There's an interesting blog post going around this morning by Marion Dane Bauer, Why Write for Children. Occasionally I ask myself the same question. Did I get stuck in some sort of developmental Never Land? Am I not a good enough writer to write for adults? Is juvenile literature somehow less valuable?
     Those who think it's easy or trivial, have probably never tried it or written anything memorable. I can't say exactly why, but the books I love best to read--and to write--are mostly intended for young people. Once, a writer I truly respect and admire, actually told me that my writing was being wasted on kids. I felt cut to the bone. It was all I ever wanted to do--my personal Olympic quest.
     "Did you like to read when you were a boy?" I asked him.
     "Oh yes, I was a passionate reader!" he assured me. He went on to tell in great detail how much he had enjoyed the works of Twain, Ernest Thompson Seton, Jean Craighead George, and E. B. White. He could recite long verses of Kipling.
     "And do you think your reading as a child had anything to do with the person and the writer you are today?" I asked.
     He paused. "Well, yes. Absolutely."
     "I rest my case." But I couldn't help adding, "You wouldn't have story, language, and the means for putting it together if you hadn't grown up on great literature. What if, like a diet of white bread and sugar, you had grown up on junk? Do our children deserve anything less than the best?"
     I was a shy, sometimes lonely kid. For the most part, my childhood was safe and wonderful, but there were undercurrents of unhappiness, anger, even some bullying. Books meant everything to me, not just as an escape, but as a parallel world every bit as true as this one. I know there are kids out there who feel the same way.
     Maybe, like James Barrie, children's writers are really children who never entirely lost the magic--who never quite grew up. I love to stop and listen to kids and to look at the world as much as I am able to through their eyes: the newness, the moment-to-moment discovery, the joys and tragedies big and small, the funny stuff, the spurts and bumps and metamorphosis of growth! How I loved the man who took time from my parents' cocktail party to teach Cathy and me the dot and line game and tell us a story. Maybe he was one who never quite grew up.
     On rare summer afternoons, our big brother, Ted, who now writes for Audubon and Fly Rod & Reel, told us "badjagerag" stories evolved from Hugh Lofting's Dr. Doolittle tales. There was magic! How I believed in Ted and Dave's adventures in Africa and those glowing green eyes in the hot jungle night!
     These days, Ted's five, grandchildren cozy up next to him at the camp in New Hampshire or call "Pop" on the phone for Crackling Geese, Young "Sloppy," and a fountain of other stories that he has never thought worth writing down. A loss to the world. Ted Williams is an award-winning, fine and respected environmental journalist. He cooks sunfish fillets for the kids, calling then "children's perch" to stretch out a family fish-fry. But actually, the sunfish are entirely delicious too, just a different species. Maybe one day he'll write some of his stories down. It would be a great contribution to the world of literature--juvenile and adult.    


Tuesday, May 13, 2014

House of a Writers Dreams

I'm glowing with joy. Yesterday I signed a contract with a brilliant agent, Brianne Johnson at Writers House, to represent my new novel, Wolfboy (working title). Writing for kids is a tough business. Not that it's cut-throat--on the contrary, in my line of work, I've encountered some of the kindest, wisest, most honest humans I know. It's just incredibly competitive. Editors are overwhelmed. And they have to be able to sell your quirky, blood-and-tear soaked work of heart. Half the battle is just getting a manuscript read. The other half is writing something worth reading.

Bri can do the rest. She can get my work read, find the right publisher, and help me make the story better if need be. Plus, she's an artist herself--a potter, invites puppies over to play and snooze, reads with a cat on her lap, adores The Clan of the Cave Bear, and passionately loves a good book. What more could I ask?

    When I was little, on hot summer nights, we slept out on the porch of our lakeside summer cottage in New Hampshire. Mum read us an eclectic mix: Thoreau, The Hardy Boys, Charlotte's Web, while we watched the great gray orb weaver trapping mosquitos over our own doorway. Ted and Dave told Cathy and me that the shabby old mounted deer head sometimes winked if you looked carefully. There weren't enough cots, so Cathy and I would each pull two of the rattan armchairs with the squeaky turquoise cushions together and make ourselves cozy "boat-beds." From the swamp across the lake, came the booming of bullfrogs and the rhythmic chanting of whip-poor-wills. The air was fishy and piney, laden with the perfume of the sweet pepper bushes that line the shore. Once in a while, as we were dropping off to sleep, a Luna moth would flutter fairy-like to the screen and settle between the fireflies for an ethereal visit. In seventh grade I wrote a story called, Annie's Fairy, which later became The Kingfisher's Gift, published by Philomel Books in 2002 and awarded a Junior Library Guild Honor.

This was meant to be a caption for this photo illustrating the glow I am feeling today. Sorry, I couldn't stop!

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Cave of a Writer's dreams

This is one of the few images I have from our trip to France a year ago, as our camera was stolen in Marseilles, but it's a favorite. I had happened to post a few shots on Facebook and was able to retrieve them. Fred and I visited Pont Vallon d'Arc in the Ardeche River gorge where the incredible Grotte Chauvet was discovered in 1994. The cave is filled with stunning paintings that may be the oldest art in the world, and which rival anything painted anywhere since. Who knew that wooly rhinos once roamed the area? But there they are on the walls, almost snorting and twitching their ratty tails, along with horses, bison, bears, lions, and many other creatures from thirty thousand years ago--but curiously these people seldom or never depicted humans or dogs.

For the past year, I'd been reading everything I could get my hands on about dogs, from old kids' books to Mark Derr's How the Dog Became the Dog, in preparation for writing my novel, Wolfboy (working title). In the cavern, they found the footprint of a boy and a canine, apparently walking side by side. Wolf? Dog? Chills up my spine! Wolf tracking boy? Early dog and boy walking together as friends the same day--or unrelated footprints ten thousand years apart? There are also depressions in the cave floor left by hibernating cave bears, along with the bones of many of those bears. Oh the rich material for imagination!

Chauvet was never opened to the public for fear of the molds which have damaged Lascaux. Fred and I knew we would not be able to enter the cave, but I had read books, studied photographs, and watched the documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, several times. I had come here to see the area and try to absorb the aura of this sacred place. We hiked up the winding trail under soaring cliffs to the entrance which was sealed off like some sort of James Bond stronghold. Conscious of the surveillance cameras trained on us, we peered through the barred gate into the area where researchers don protective clothing before entering. Then we scuttled along the steep, wooded slope a few yards further and found this little hollow in the rock. It was big enough for a person to shelter. Perhaps someone long ago spent a rainy night there.