The habit of hoping

This book has become something of a touchstone for me. I go back to it again and again.

In re-reading a chapter entitled 'The habit of hoping', I was recently reminded of an interview with Kate DiCamillo where she says there's only one thing she keeps in mind, only one hard and fast rule she holds on to: "which is something from Katherine Patterson - that you're duty-bound when you write for kids, to end with hope.  Other than that rule, all bets are off."  

It's one of the essential ways in which children's literature serves its readers - by allowing for the presence of hope, by creating the space for it to exist, to breathe, to be. That's all - the creation of a space to fill, no matter how slight. It's not a guarantee, it's not about an idealised happy ending, there is no masking of the complexity, pain or paradox that weaves through childhood as much as adulthood.  But hope is there in the closing pages, it's there in the end. And it's unyielding.  

Here is McCann's chapter in full:

Noticing the details

This picture is taken inside the heart of a small English wood. It was Big Butterfly Count Day and we were looking for butterflies. Is that a Painted Lady or a Small Tortoiseshell? The differences are subtle. What's a fritillary? I had never noticed how jagged, erratic and skittish the flight of a butterfly is until I tried to take a closer look at wing patterns and quietly followed one in motion. 

Is that a wild orchid or a young foxglove? An Oak sapling or Ash? Hazel or Maple? It's hard to know sometimes, how much detail to notice, to include.  How much is enough to bring the reader to the point at which you stand, to see what you're seeing?  Not enough and the picture is vague, out of focus, blurred.  Too much and it's overwhelming, dense, tiresome, like wading through clay. 

Library love

A little while ago my local library invited visitors to write down what they love about the library.  Here are a few of the comments that got pinned to the board. 

Public libraries are having to work hard to preserve federal funding right now, school libraries too.  In a recent article from Publisher's Weekly, I read that former NEH Chairman, William D. Adams recently pointed out that it was no accident that the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts were established alongside the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act as part of of the “Great Society” legislative push.  He added that the “humanities and democracy are deeply and permanently intertwined in the history of the life of this country.”  I paused when I read that.  (See link to full article below.)

It seems so obvious - that the freedom for all to access and read literature in a public library should be so closely tied to the growth of democracy.  It has been a thorny path over time and we have a long way to go yet, as evidenced by the profound need for more diverse and inclusive books within the current arc of children's literature, but public libraries encapsulate the pursuit of this liberty.   History tells us what happens when it is threatened and overcome - books get burned and the single story takes hold, choking democratic values.  This is a fight worth participating in. For more information see the links below. 

World Refugee Day June 20

I have been fortunate enough to hear the children's author, Grace Lin speak in person. Her thoughts on books needing to provide both windows and mirrors is something that resonated with me, alongside writers and readers from all over the world. Yesterday was World Refugee Day 2017.  I recently read The Journey with my children and the conversation that followed reminded me of everything Lin had to say.  In reading this book, the children looked through the pages, through the rich, layered illustrations - beyond all they know and into a world they don't. They saw complexity, loss, beauty, courage and desperate hardship. And they were able to plant a tiny seed of understanding, to catch a glimpse of the way other children see themselves, of what other children have had to endure and continue to struggle with every day.  Empathy is nourished through story. Books connect.

The Journey is written and illustrated by Francesca Sanna.  

Visit the International Rescue Committee (IRC) for more on World Refugee Day.

Here is an article in the New York Times by Deborah Ellis talking about the role of picture books in helping to explain the refugee crisis to children, including The Journey by Francesca Sanna. It's a year old but still relevant.

An unexpected pairing

My friend Wendy recently suggested we read George Saunders' convocation address, Congratulations by the way, alongside one of his short stories, The Semplica Girl Diaries, for book club.  For me, the short story hung on a particular line - attributed to the main character's youngest child, Eva:  "I don't like it.  It's not nice."  Her words are honest, spare, direct and motivated by instinctive empathy, by a belief in kindness.  Her emotional response to what she sees quietly echoes the heart of his address. This blog is concerned with craft, not current affairs, but it was impossible not to feel grateful for a celebration of kindness amidst recent events. 

To read the full address see this New York Times article.

A brand new book

Having an idea for a novel is one thing. Starting it another. Finishing a first draft, all the way from start to finish, takes an extraordinary amount of dedication. Revising that draft... puts the whole process of writing a book into another category of focus and determination. I'm so proud of my friend, Leah Henderson, for publishing her moving debut novel, One Shadow on the Wall.  It's beautifully written and provides a window into the life of a young Senegalese boy struggling to do the right thing. I can't recommend it enough.

Where did you come from?

Beginnings are surprising.  I'm never quite sure where the next beginning will come from, or why.  The trick is to be open to them, or they slip away, into the mind of another writer who's ready and waiting.  The manuscript I'm working on right now began with a news story about a boy who made a little library for his mum, on Mother's Day. It was a secret, he had stayed up all night with his Dad, crafting it, painting it, filling it with books and installing it on their front lawn.  His mum was an English teacher and he knew that she would love something like this. He was right, she did. I like to imagine her joyfully waving her arms about, in her nightie and curlers and dog-eared slippers running through the wet grass, all excited and teary the first time she sees it. But it was not to last. And this is true - an official from the City soon arrived, shook his head and demanded it be taken down. A violation of code apparently.  And so I thought about a boy, wanting to save a library, and although my story has grown into something very different, that's how it all began. 

PS - Little Free Libraries are beautiful.  Put one up if you can.

Reading right now -

Being a slow reader is a gift when it comes to really good books - the ones you hope will never end.  I've discovered a lot of those lately.  Because I grew up in England there are so many American novels I haven't read yet. They are not new, just new to me. Like this one.  It's perfect. A perfect book. 

The real Clarion Alley

There's a place in my imagination called The City of Imago.  One of the neighborhoods there is Vicinias Picto, where all the walls and houses are covered in bright murals, a bit like some of the pictures below. I used to live in San Francisco and I suppose that somewhere, in the back of my mind, this is the street I was thinking of when I created Picto.