Archive for the ‘writing for children’ Category

Pay Attention, Report Back

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

Originally appeared July 20, 2012 on our critique group blog, BooksAroundtheTable on WordPress.com.

It seems my monthly turn at this blog comes around too quickly. Then I think of my Dad. For 25 years, he wrote a three-times-a-week column that ran on the front page of his newspaper, the Sonora Union Democrat. Three times a week.

A precursor to blogging, Dad’s Sierra Lookout column was a forum for his take on the life and times of his beloved “poison-oakers” in California’s Mother Lode. Dad wrote about his childhood, family, local issues, world news, and rural life, all from the perspective of a self-described “country editor.”

Harvey McGee, 1990

The following column seemed to raise its hand to be included on our Books Around the Table blog because it was written on July 19, 1977. That’s 35 years ago, almost to the day. I think of it as an ode to the Sierra.

WHEN THE insides of your knees are chafed all the way up to the end of your spine.
When anything you sit in seems to lurch and shake.
When the backs of your hands and ears are chapped and sunburned.

WHEN YOU can’t get the smell of fish out from under your fingernails and the smell of smoke out of your clothes.
When the porch railing is draped with an open sleeping bag.
When the air mattress that stayed puffed up only long enough to lure you onto it is on the way to the dump.

WHEN YOU’VE said thanks to Mr. Cutter and his magic mosquito repellant and drained the pollywogs from a glass of Tang for the last time.
When you can smile again without your lips cracking.
When old “Mac” is again munching hay in Willy Ritts’ Kennedy Meadows corral.

WHEN ALL these things are done you lie on that bed that never deflates and remember –
The gentle plunk of the lure on the long cast.
The dart of a shadow from a deep pool, the splash and flash of silver – then nothing.
Or maybe a solid tug – too soft for a snag, too firm for anything but a lunker.

OR VAST ranges of granite pocked by blue jewels with revered names – Black Bear, Bigelow, Emigrant, Dorothy, Maxwell.
And in the folds of rock: lush meadows, green groves, clear streams. Far beyond and below, the grey-brown air trapped in the simmering valley.

SOON forgotten are the lurching chafing and burning of the sometimes rider. Even the memory of Pear Ripple, wet clothes and gin rummy defeats begins to fade.
What remains as clear as the night sky over Bigelow Peak are the steaks, shishkebob and basted eggs by an expert volunteer cook, the sweet meat of camp-smoked trout and the fellowship of others who share an unspoken appreciation of the remote magnificence.

VISITORS to the wilderness are apt to feel some guilt about the privilege, but that’s the paradox of the place. If it were easily available to more, it would soon be enjoyed by none.         –Harvey C. McGee

Emigrant Basin. Photo courtesy of Susan McGee Britton.

As writers and artists it’s our calling to pay attention and report back. No one sees the world quite the same way. I’m lucky to have my Dad’s columns – his keen observations and amused take on the human condition, his personal stories and opinions – to guide me. Not to mention the gold mine of over 2,500 columns that will come in handy when I’m looking down the trail for a blogpost idea.

Riding into the high country, 1968. L to r: Marny Gorgas, Kate McGee, Laura McGee.

The Private Lives of Books

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

Originally posted June 22, 2012, on our critique group blog, BooksAroundtheTable, at WordPress.com.

You rarely know what becomes of your book once it goes to live on other people’s shelves. Sure, you hope it is treasured, read and re-read. But mostly books don’t write home after they leave.

Luckily, every now and then I hear about one of my books’ lives out there in the world. Like this story.

A young mother who has three kids under the age of 7 told me how they played Zelda and Ivy and the Boy Next Door. I assumed the oldest, Betsy, would have played the bossy older sister Zelda. But Betsy was magnanimous and let her younger brother, David, 5, play Zelda. She assigned the youngest, Gus, 3, the role of the owl who is featured only in illustrations (see above).

The kids set up their sleeping bags and acted out the third chapter, “Camping Out,” in which Zelda sings Ivy to sleep while watching for shooting stars. Their mother fed them the lines, which they repeated, adding actions. David belted out The Ants Go Marching One by One and Take Me Out to the Ballgame, but was less sure of The Star Spangled Banner.

I like to imagine them in their living room: David/Zelda and Betsy/Ivy tucked in their sleeping bags, Gus the owl perched on the top of the sofa; kids and mom engaged. My book having a great life.

Doozying Up Vocabulary

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

Originally posted May 25, 2012, on our critique group blog, BooksAroundtheTable, at WordPress.com.

I expect that every tribe over the years develops a few useful words or phrases that make up its unique lexicon. Here are a few from my tribe that you, too, may find useful.

GMAZEL – an extra stop or errand. This recalls our friend LeRoy Gmazel and the winter day he drove us to the ski slopes. On the way, he made not one, not two, but three side trips: picking up skis, dropping off a bag of potatoes, returning a friend’s chainsaw. Thus in our family when you ask for an extra stop along the way, you request a gmazel.

WOLVERINE! – the opposite of crying wolf. Wolverines are serious, fierce animals. When you call “wolverine,” you really mean it. A family member will rush to your aid. Especially useful if the tp has run out.

MIMI HAIR – hair that sticks up in every direction. My friend Emilee Birrell’s childhood doll Mimi had the most unmanageable of unmanageable hair. Emilee’s mom bought Mimi a new wig– and still the wild hair persists. (Thanks for the photo, Em.)

“IS THERE A DAY YOU DON’T DISAPPOINT ME?” – a smart alec phrase used to get family members moving. We encountered this one on the Greek island of Kea. The innkeeper came by early one morning with maps and advice and helped us plan out the day’s hike. Two hours later, we were still sitting on the porch when he strolled by again. He called to us, “Is there a day you don’t disappoint me?”

Eventually we hiked to the ancient city of Karthaia and the ruins of a 6th century BC temple to Athena above this beach. Beautiful.
Zelda doozied up Ivy’s tail.

When you are creating the world of a story, you may find that words and phrases particular to that world begin to emerge. In my own Zelda and Ivy stories, the sisters  “punch paws” in solidarity, “woozy-weasel promise” to seal a deal, and “doozy up their tails.” These turns of phrase are part of their fox-tribal lexicon.

Now it’s your turn. What words and phrases are unique to your tribe?

A Rock Solid Story

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

Originally posted April 4, 2012, at our critique group blog, Books Around the Table, wordpress.com.

Last week, the guys from B&D Rockeries built a long wall along our driveway to stabilize the steep slope below the house. While they were down there working, I was up in the house constructing a revision of my middle-grade novel-in-progress.

B&D is a partnership between Neil Eneix, 62, and his dad Clayton, 81. Neil sets up their projects and Clayton runs the installations from his seat high in the track hoe. By manipulating levers that control the big boom, the dipper and the jaws, Clayton can land an 800-pound rock with the precision of a mama bestowing a kiss on her baby’s forehead.

I watched them lay out the materials: soil for filler, and the one- and two- man rocks. Then, in 20-foot stretches, they started to build. Working with both the track hoe (Clayton) and shovels (the rest of the crew), they cleared the way for the new wall by digging into the hill, working around big tree roots.

Rocks were placed one by one. Clayton selected from the rock pile with an expert’s eye. Then he maneuvered the track hoe to lift each rock, turn and lower it into place. At the jaws end of the track hoe, Mark, who’s in his 40s, settled the stones in place, making smaller adjustments. Clayton and Mark have been working together for nine years and seemed to communicate telepathically. Mark’s son, David, 22, shoveled to backfill as the wall grew. Four generations working together to build our wall.

Our new rock wall has a traditional, purposeful design. The biggest rocks were laid first, creating a sturdy base along the bottom. Next came the smaller secondary rocks filling the voids between the big stones, and finally the top course, providing a flat and finished top. As Neil told me later, “Every rock has its home.”

The B&D Rockeries Crew

Back up in the house, I considered my novel in stretches, too: beginning, middle, end. It’s the middle that has my attention lately. The big stones are in place and seem to have found their homes, but I am playing with the secondary pieces, moving some around, discarding others, finding new pieces that are a better fit. I’m trying to find a combination of chapters and scenes and beats and even words that builds a story as interdependent as our new rock wall. A story where every piece matters. In a way, I am working across generations, too. This story has roots in my father’s childhood. If only he were still here to pull the levers and guide the construction.

The rock guys completed our wall by early afternoon. In one day they built a thing of beauty and utility that will be here long after we’ve left the scene. I can only hope to create a story as enduring.

Our new rock wall

The 1,000 Beginnings Project

Thursday, April 5th, 2012
(Originally posted on the faculty blog, Vermont College of Fine Arts, MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults,
 http://writeatyourownrisk.posterous.com/)

 

I spent four days in Mount Vernon, WA, last week, speaking to students at a Young Authors Conference; three talks a day, a hundred second- through sixth-graders plus their adult group leaders per talk. This allowed me to gather almost one thousand tiny writing samples, one thousand opening sentences of personal narratives.

I was curious to discover what this collection of stickyback strips might say about these writers and their lives. After much shuffling, the majority seemed to fall into the following groups: family stories, 133, (includes moving, 14, and new siblings, 15); pet stories, 97; weather, 89; vacation stories, 76, (15 mention Disneyland and four begin, “Are we there yet?”); sports stories, 65, (includes 11 about swimming); friends stories, 64, (18 about new friends); injury stories, 55; action/adventure/scary stories, 53; stories seemingly related to stories I told in my presentation, 33, (yes, I love how sticky stories are); country life stories, (hiking, fishing, riding horses and three-wheeled vehicles), 16; Young Authors event stories, 11; birthdays, 4.

Before we brainstormed, I talked about how we connect to our readers through the emotion of a story. I encouraged kids to write about a memory that held strong emotion and they responded with an emotional rainbow: sad stories about lost or dying pets, or, saddest of all, a dad in jail; the thrill of a trip to Disneyland, making a new friend, getting a new sibling, sailing down a ski slope.

There were openers that tugged at my heart, like: “One summer day, my dad left for Afghanistan because he was in the Navy.” Or, in a very cramped printing, “The path I’ve gone through is unbearable. But the path only makes me stronger.” I always admire a writer who can put his truth on the page, but I hate that kids have such hard stuff to deal with.

On a lighter note, despite drizzling rain all week, more than 15 percent of these Northwest kids included the sun or a warm day in their opening sentence.

Here are some of my favorites, with attribution when available.

  • It all started with the Batman pajamas.
  • Having bloody noses is not the best way to spend a whole summer.
  • There was a time, there was a time where everything was perfect in my life.
  • “You get the shovel, I have the rake,” said Chuck. “We will meet in the woods.” – Ethan
  • “Molly! Look!” I whipped my head around and saw five dorsal fins poking out of the water.
  • Chris liked birds. He liked robins, ducks, swans and bluejays.
  • It was cold but I still took hold of the K.G.M.I. banner for St. Paddy’s Day. – Maddie
  • Over the gleaming river, it seemed that nothing would ever happen that could be bad.
  • Me and Grandma was sitting still in a boat fishing. – Tessa
  • Rose was lying on the trampoline staring at the blue sky when she heard some giggles. – Lilly
  • The rain pounded down on the backs of the weary travelers.
  • My name is Larry and I am a tornado watcher. – Keaton
  • The happiest day of my life was when I knew about dinosaurs. The first dino I knew about was triceratops.
  • My dad drove up to a house and two people walked out wearing Groucho Marx glasses. I didn’t know they would become my two favorite relatives.
  • “No! I don’t want to take a bath,” I yelled.
  • “What was the last thing you said to Grandma?” asked Mom.
  • “Dad, Dad. No not that. I told you to play a music video, not home videos. You are the most embarrassing dad in the history of embarrassing dads.” – Carsin
  • The bell sounded. Everyone ran. I lined up. I saw the smoke flying off the top of the school.
  • I looked about the room. I hadn’t seen so many boxes since Christmas.
  • “You are going to have a brother,” Da said. “But I want a kitten,” Kyra cried.
  • I cannot believe my hamster teddy – a grey dwarf hamster with a white stripe down his back – died.
  • How can I get out of this cage thought Chewy?
  • I was looking at the thousands of sad-seeming cats at the shelter, when I saw an almost familiar looking, smokey-grey cat. – Gilly
  • Really, only Alexa was going through the Young Authors conference since Juliya had been snoring most of the time. – Alexa

I want to end this post with a shout out to Marie Weltz who has worked on this conference for each of its 20 years. She celebrated her 80th birthday Thursday. Think of all the young writers who have been inspired by her efforts. The conference is sponsored by the NW Educational Service District and Skagit Valley College. The kids come from 40 elementary schools, including public and parochial, private and home schools. Each attended a workshop with an author and a workshop with an illustrator and my presentation. They also had an hour where they met with students from other schools and shared the manuscripts they’d brought along. Though Marie is stepping down this year as head, her legacy will live on.

Meanwhile, when I need an idea for a new beginning, I know where to look.


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