Recently I was asked to reflect upon writing between forms; that is, writing different kinds of books in a variety of formats (picture book, chapter book, novel, non-fiction book, poetry, etc.). For me, that would be the difference between writing picture books, chapter books, and novels.
I've written and published all three. What I've found is that basically there are two very different processes involved, and my emotional response to the task at hand is different for each. (For the present, I've lumped chapter books in with novels. There are differences between writing the chapter book and the novel, but the emotional response to that process for these two formats is very similar.)
When I write a picture book it feels more like solving a puzzle. How can I get counting, a skunk's physical reactions, adverbs, and a surprise into very few words? (BRAVEST OF THE BRAVE, Knopf, 2005) If the text is in verse, there are the added constraints of rhyme, meter, and other patterns. Finally, I cut to the point where I feel something triumphant in my chest if I can find just one more "the" to delete. I use more of the problem-solving side of my brain with a goal of getting it all into the sleekest lines I can. Thereby, lots of the story remains for the illustrator to depict. It feels quick and fun, and like a satisfying splashy romp through a sprinkler on a hot day.
When I write a novel (or chapter book), I feel like I am jumping into a warm lake. I am overcome with the need to kick my feet, keep my head above the water, and keep swimming. It is almost overwhelming. In addition to many of the requirements of a picture book I need to explore character and setting (often as another character) to its fullest -- rather than honing in on only one or two aspects of a character as I might in a picture book. I need to take the plot all the way to a logical, satisfying, but also surprising end -- rather than highlighting one moment in time, as is often done in a picture book. And I need to plunge myself into the emotional through-line of the story -- that is, feel my main character's pain or joy. Once, I was at the computer pounding away on the keys with the tears streaming down my face when my husband looked in and said, "You're crying." "Yes," I said. "Is that good?" he asked. "Yes!" I said, and continued creating as he tiptoed away.
To do all this I must go back and reread all I've written thus far of the novel, or at least since the last time I worked on it (usually from the day before). I need to do a lot of thinking rather than so much rearranging, and looking at pattern as I do with picture books. I need uninterrupted time to visualize my characters into being -- first, he moves his hand to cover his eyes . . . then he raises his eyes and sees . . . what? What, then, does he say? What effect does it have on the character who hears what he says? How will his words move the story forward? During this time I am often doing some sort of repetitious activity at home -- mowing the lawn, doing dishes, etc. I find that simply letting the body move in an automatic way will free the mind to wander. Walking is good for this, also.
Writing novels is an altogether slower, longer, deeper immersion. I am using more of the intuitive side of my brain as I figure out how to settle in for a marathon swim across a dark lake whose other side I can't quite see from here. And when I get there, though it may not be anything like I expected, there is the exhausted satisfaction of having done it.
If you've a mind to write, jump in! The water's wonderful. We can chase each other across the lawn and dive into the lake, or leap over the misty rainbow-making sprinkler on a hot day.
As we cascade (or is it plod?) toward the end of the school year, many of us feel an urge to tie up loose ends. So, in this month's article we'll try to untangle what Joan Didion, calls "bits of the mind's string too short to use."
→Last time we looked at students' rights. What about teachers' rights? For a comprehensive article, including a state-by-state summary of grounds for dismissal, go to this web site. Here's a bit of the string that's pulled the article. Teachers have constitutional and case law rights to freedom of association; freedom of expression, with limitations; academic freedom, again with limitations; and protection against unreasonable searches and seizure of personal property.Freedom from discrimination based on race, religion, sex, age, sexual orientation, pregnancy, and national origin are vouchsafed in federally funded public schools, but not in private schools.Of special interest is the touchy area of academic freedom.The subject content, of course, must be relevant to, and consistent with, the teacher's charge to teach to age, grade, and experience level of students, within a range established by the district.A teacher cannot spout his/her personal agenda and bias, but where's the line between "appropriate" and "slanted?"Unclear.At times, one doesn't know until he or she unwittingly sticks a toe beyond that line.The website above offers information about tenure denial, due process, and recourse when rights may have been violated.For a good analysis of teachers' rights, take a look at this site.
→Librarians have rights, too.School lbrarians, teacher/librarians, media specialists, or whatever a district calls those heroic souls who are the hub of the school are entitled to all of the above.Public librarians operate under a different and somewhat freer regime.The American Library Association has a Library Bill of Rights.It doesn't directly address the librarian's rights, for those would be delineated in each institution's policy on hiring and dismissal.What it does address is that "books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves."This policy provides latitude for, and protection of, the librarian who disseminates potentially controversial materials.
→Did you catch the NPR program where Marilyn Johnson was interviewed? She discussed This Book is Overdue; How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All. With humor and depth, Johnson writes about "a profession in the midst of an occasionally mind-blowing transition."She explores myriad ways that librarians steer us down the confusing, sometimes treacherous information superhighway.Especially read about the Connecticut Four -- librarians who stood up to the FBI and the Patriot Act to defend the library user's right to privacy and freedom from unreasonable search and seizure.If you missed the program, you can find a juicy summary here.
Those are the bits of string on my mind, rolled into a tight ball.And incidentally, if you're wondering where the world's largest ball of twine is, it's in Cawker City, Kansas.It's visible day and night.Enjoy.
This month I will be focusing on the end of the story-stage twelve, the Reward. If you missed any of my previous articles for stages one through eleven of the Hero's Journey, GO HERE.
The Climax, which I discussed in last month's issue, is the point of highest tension in the external story. This is the final test to see if the transformation that occurred earlier in the story is real or only temporary. Even if the main character has had friends accompany him on a long and treacherous journey, at the Climax he often must act alone.
The stage that follows is the Reward. Everyone gets their just deserts. If the main character has continued to act foolishly until the bitter end, the story may end tragically. The picture book, The Spider and the Fly, is an excellent example of this and the eerie black and white illustrations make the book work well for all ages.
A hero who successfully makes the transformation, will often return to the group with a prize that can be shared such as an elixir, a talisman, a balm, or an important victory-something that restores peace and happiness to the land. Chris Vogler, in his book The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, calls this stage the Return with the Elixir. In stories with a circular structure, the hero may end up returning all the way back to the Old World.
Sometimes this "group" is merely the main character and the reader. If the main character successfully makes his transformation, but dies during the climax, then the Reward may be his departing to be with the souls of loved ones. There may also be a funeral or a brief gathering celebrating the hero's accomplishments and his final sacrifice. It is rare for this to happen in children's literature. The movies Braveheart and Gladiator are examples of adult stories where the hero dies at the end but his death brings victory and resolution to longstanding conflicts.
The prize (love, money, medicine, success) may be what has been sought all through the story or it may be something different altogether. Sometimes the prize has been lost and the real reward is knowledge, self-awareness or simply a good story. There is often a celebration. A marriage ceremony at the end of a love story is an example of the hero sharing his love with family and friends. A parade is a way of sharing a victory. If the hero dies, even foolishly, it is those who are left behind who learn the important lesson.
This stage in the story may also be referred to as the denouement, which means to untie the knot in Old French. This is a time to tie up loose ends and answer any remaining questions. Some stories have a quick or surprise ending without a denouement. Some writers give lengthy explanations tying up every loose end. Shakespeare often does this in his comedies. Other authors intentionally leave things unanswered. The Lord of the Flies is an example of this.
For a fun activity exploring the Reward, see the April Random Writing Activity on the blog on my website at www.caroleedean.com.
During our first year of SPELLBINDERS, I've buzzed about picture books, Middle-Grade novels, Young Adult books, Newbery/Caldecott/Printz potential winners, and now, at last, we're going to end the year with NON-FICTION! Some of you may be wondering why it took so long because there are more non-fiction books published every year than fiction. If you're not quite sure about that statement, go check out your local bookstore or library shelves!
I've spent 20+ years raising three boys and every week when we hit the local library, my sons were all over the non-fiction shelves like icing on cake. Mesmerizing non-fiction abounds. We read more of it, bought more of it, and paid more fines on it than anything else. You can find a book on every topic imaginable, and some topics that you may not have thought about! Enjoy these great titles.
Chasing Lincoln's Killer by James L. Swanson (Harpercollins) - John Wilkes Booth had planned to kidnap Lincoln and hold him hostage, but when that plan did not materialize, he hatched his assassination plot. Co-conspirators in Washington, Maryland, and Virginia helped him escape and evade capture for 12 days before being surrounded in a barn and killed. Told in a nearly hour-by-hour search, your students will be thrilled and engrossed by this tale of the many people who encountered the killer as he tried to escape.
Astrobiology by Fred Bortz from Lerner's "Cool Science" series describes how scientists study the possibility of life on other worlds. Are we alone in the universe? Is Earth the only suitable planet for life? These questions motivate astrobiologists, scientists who search for life in the universe. Astrobiologists compare life on Earth to signs of life on other planets. They test meteorites for alien bacteria. They collect soil and atmospheric samples from other planets. They study space mission photographs. And they listen for signals from alien civilizations on enormous radio dishes. Learn all about astrobiologists' amazing research in this fast-paced peek into the future of science. Watch for Dr. Bortz's Our Next Planet: Why, When, and How People Will Settle Other Worlds, by Boyds Mills Press coming soon!
Bubble Homes and Fish Farts by Fiona Bayrock (Charlesbridge, Junior Library Guild Selection) - This book shows the surprisingly varied ways in which bubbles are incorporated in an animal's life. A humpback whale swims in circles to create a bubble net, herding fish toward the center, where they can be scooped into its enormous mouth. Juniper spittlebug nymphs encase themselves in a mound of gooey foam that protects them until they are ready to molt. A glossary and four pages of amazing facts are appended. Illustrated with watercolors, this book introduces 16 bubble makers, from insects to humans.
If Stones Could Speak by Marc Aronson (National Geographic Children's Books) - What are the secrets of the ancient stone circle? Were the carefully placed stones a burial site, an ancient calendar, a place of Druid worship...or even a site of sacrifice? Marc Aronson joined world-renowned archaeologist Mike Parker-Pearson during the last seven years on his quest to answer the many questions about Stonehenge's secrets. The team unearthed the largest Neolithic village ever found in England. This book includes tales of dead bodies, cremations, feasting, and ancient rituals, as well as insights into the science of uncovering the ancient past. Stunning photography and maps and illustrations are included.
Down Down Down: A Journey to the Bottom of the Sea by Steve Jenkins, previous Caldecott Honor-winner (Houghton Mifflin) - The narration in this book makes you feel like you have been taken on a deep sea exploration. There is a little bar along each page to show you how deep under the sea you've traveled as you make your way through the book - and the deeper you go, the more exotic undersea life becomes. Wonderfully rendered with sophisticated, torn-paper collage. End notes on each featured creature.
Almost Astronauts, winner of the 2010 Sibert Award for best non-fiction, by Tanya Lee Stone (Candlewick) - "Space gals. Astronettes. Astrodolls . . . Who do these women think they are?" Nearly 20 years before the U.S. officially admitted women into the astronaut program, 13 women, known as the Mercury 13, fought for the right to soar into space. This dramatic, large-size photo-essay covers their stories, along with the exciting politics of the women's liberation struggle in the 1950s and '60s and the breakthrough science and technology surrounding space exploration, including details of the would-be astronauts' tests and training. Full-page photos, detailed chapter notes and a bibliography. Synopsis excerpted from Booklist.