One of my favourite independent bookshops is called Octavia's and it's in the small market town of Cirencester, England. I'm lucky enough to go in every summer and it's a trip we all look forward to. I'm always keen to see what she has on display and ask about the middle grade books that have recently been published there. Some are similar to what I might find at my local bookstore in the States, some are very different. Either way, it's an inspiring visit and I leave grateful for the presence and passion of indie booksellers.
Recently I read two books that speak directly to the power of story. They were set in different parts of the world, written at different times and driven by very different plot lines - but both brought me into the life and mind of another character so fully that I cried. I cried my heart out, an uncomfortable, messy cry.
Story is the only means we have of being able to come close to inhabiting somebody else's life, of being able to feel somebody else's feelings or see the world from a different vantage point. Both of these writers are master storytellers and I would urge everyone to read their work. It's often assumed that children's literature is full of gnomes and giggles and sweet furry things. Which is true of course, and thankfully so. There is a place and a profound need for sweet furry things and giggles, often in the darkest of times. But there is also a need for other kinds of stories, the ones that delve into the most challenging parts of being human, whether you're a child or not. Perhaps especially if you're a child.
There is a place and a need for all kinds of stories.
'The possibilities are endless because the stirring of the imagination never rests, and because we can never stop trying to make feeling felt.' - Eudora Welty.
Links to interviews with both writers:
A while ago I read Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane and was struck by a passage about the disappearance of certain words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary for children. Many of the words he cited as being dropped were related to the natural world, their empty spaces being filled by words that relate to technology. It makes sense that dictionaries need to reflect practical and current usage but still, this was depressing news to me.
And yet. A few weeks ago I read an article about a picture book he recently published called The Lost Words. The gorgeous illustrations are by Jackie Morris. It's beautiful, it's captivating, it's original. Please read it, share it, gift it, because it would seem that yes, words do get lost. They get lost because they stop being used. But as this spellbinding book proves, words get lost but they may also be recovered, found and brought back to life.
A portion of the books proceeds are being donated to Action for Conservation, for more information visit their website.
I have not written enough yet to have a reliable sense of pattern within my overall creative process. But I have written enough to know that 'endings' tend to be no more than a temporary pause. For now then, I have finished re-visioning my manuscript. I've done the part that is within my control: I showed up, I did the best that I could do.
As I shut down my computer for the night, I don't feel relief so much as gratitude. I'm grateful to my critique partners, to my close friends and family who have patiently helped me reach this temporary end. But above all, I'm grateful that this is what I get to do with my days: craft a story, imperfect and honest as it may be.
I am still in the process of revising my manuscript. When a friend asks how my writing is going and I say that I am still revising my manuscript, often they reply, "still?" and I can see the surprise. The mild disbelief. The repeated use of the word 'still' makes me feel as though I'm stuck and not moving. But what I'm really doing when I revise is re-vision. I'm re-visioning the manuscript, I'm working with the story from a new and dynamic perspective, I'm re-imagining it, I'm re-creating it. It's not easy, but there's nothing static about it either. And that helps.
Useful articles on revision:
Necessary Fiction: A month of revision by Matt Salesses
My sister-in-law gave a copy of Trumpet of the Swan to my son for Christmas - I wasn't sure if he would be as excited to read it as some of the more contemporary books he has enjoyed lately, full of monster slayings, fierce battles and heady page-turning mystery. But he has, he has loved every word. My husband has been reading it to him before bed and it just so happened that last night they reached the end. I got to hear the final sentence and was reminded of two things I needed reminding of - first that the light returns with the day. The light returns. And second, that there is room and there is need for all kinds of stories.
I was recently searching for some author interviews to share with my 4th Grade Writing Club, specifically ones that talked about the craft of writing in ways that might be accessible and useful to them. Here are our two favourites:
This website is a wealth of information and resources. It's focused around World Book Day, which will be on 1 March 2018. Our group especially liked the Cressida Cowell interview.
NBC Learn has a page full of interviews with children's authors. We watched and discussed the Jacqueline Woodson clip but they are all interesting and super accessible. It was published some years ago but much of the advice and thinking is timeless.
Just before the beginning of this new year, I had the opportunity to visit the Library of Congress's Children's Department. I got to see a rare edition of what is considered the first ever children's picture book, Orbis Sensualium Pictus or 'Visible World in Pictures'. This particular copy was published in 1664, as you can see if you look closely at the bottom of the right hand page. Visible world in pictures. I keep thinking about that as I begin a fresh round of revisions and dig a little deeper into my current manuscript. That's what I'm doing, making imaginary pictures out of words, invoking all my senses - of the visible but also the invisible world around me. And I wonder how those two things relate, the real and the imaginary, the visible and invisible. And then I stop for a moment and the cursor blinks and I feel grateful, that this is how I get to begin each day, before the sun rises, crafting a story, making pictures.
A friend of mine recommended Dear Genius - The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, some time ago, but it was only recently that I had a chance to read it. For anybody writing children's literature, it's a gift. It's true that much of the content published today is very different to what it was when she was an editor and publisher at Harper & Row (during the 1940s, 50s and 60s) and we now communicate mostly through email, but there remains so much to be gleaned from this book.
In the introduction to the collection, Marcus writes of a crumpled slip of paper that Nordstrom carried in her purse as a kind of 'professional credo, to be shared with authors and reread to herself' during her most tired and disillusioned moments. On the crumpled slip of paper was advice given to Agnes de Mille, by the legendary choreographer, Martha Graham. It's something I have shared with my critique group and have taped to my own computer today.
"There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action and because there is only one of you in all of time this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly, to keep the channel open."
~ As quoted in Dear Genius, from Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham by Agnes de Mille.
The Highlights mission reads: "To improve the quality of children's literature by helping authors and illustrators hone their craft." Writing can be lonely, so finding ways to connect with and learn from other writers - wherever they may be on their own creative journey - keeps the fire burning. It was a memorable weekend and I learned a great deal, not just from the faculty but my fellow writers too. I'm always humbled by how much people put into the stories they have to tell, how much there is to learn about the craft and how generous and supportive the children's literature community is. I left full of gratitude.