Books I Wish I’d Written

For a change of pace, all of the books I’m writing about were written in this century! I’ve tried to include something for every age. For those old enough, all of them are wonderful.

Press Here, a picture book written and illustrated by Herve Tullet, published in France in 2010, and in the U.S.A. in 2011 by Chronicle Books. This book is the kind of book that leads people to say things like, “I could write that.” His illustrations even lead me to say, “I could do that.”

But those of us who are not Herve Tullet did not have the deceptively simple, yet dazzlingly brilliant idea that makes this picture book such a clever, funny, and even interactive (?) book without any google eyes, pop-ups, or any kind of gimmick (not that I’m always opposed to gimmicks).

I can’t tell you much more without giving it away. It made me laugh each time I read it so I bought it. One friend didn’t get it—which is my only clue that it might not be for everyone, but I just can’t wait to read it with some kids, age unimportant.

After you read the book, do you have any ideas for stickers or crayons?

Remember the SCBWI conference (Three Days of Peace, Love, and Rollicking Books, 8/23/12)? Remember Gary Schmidt who said writers should write to “give kids more to be a human being with”? Well, I checked out two of his books for middle-grade readers. Wow! He can speak and write eloquently.

Lizzy Bright and the Buckminster Boy, written by Gary D. Schmidt and published by

Not the Atlantic actually, but . . .

Houghton Mifflin Co. in 2004. The backstory for this novel is an actual event that ocurred on a small island off Maine’s coast that was settled by people who were not ethnically or otherwise acceptable to the people of the nearby mainland town.  The island people were eventually run off the island. The novel is the story of the new preacher’s son who is considered an outsider among the boys of the town. Turner makes friends with an African-American girl from the island and with some of the town’s residents who are also considered inconvenient by the townsfolk.

This book has sentences of great beauty, scenes that are heart-breaking, and scenes that inspire. It faces part of our ugly history, but reminds us there are people who, by fighting prejudice and injustice, remind others of what is important. Lizzy Bright and the Buckminster Boy was a Newbery Honor Book.

The Wednesday Wars, written by Gary D. Schmidt and published by Houghton Mifflin Co. in 2007. At first I enjoyed the story (it’s funny too), but felt it didn’t have the depth of Lizzy Bright and the Buckminster Boy. As the story continues, more layers are added, and we see the protagonist grow in understanding and compassion while the book retains its humor. This was also a Newbery Honor Book. There were many beautiful lines I read to my husband. There were certain elements of the book that interfered with his suspension of disbelief—some unrealistic school practices.

In both books, Gary Schmidt provides tools “to be more human with.” These are books that will be on my giving list.

The Fault in Our Stars, written by John Green and published by Dutton Books in 2012. While an adult novel, this book seems perfect to me as a young adult read. Hazel is seventeen years old. She has loving parents . . .  and terminal cancer, which she sees as “a side effect of dying” and by extension a side effect of living. She loves her loving parents and worries about the side effects of her death on them.

The book has drama, lots of funny lines, lots of thoughtful lines, true love, true friendship, international travel, and a “disgusting” author of the book Hazel is obsessed with. There were lots of lines I wanted to read to my husband, but didn’t since he’s going to read it next.

For some terrific night sky photos, go to

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/new/2012/05/pictures/20515-best-earth-sky-picture-2012-comet-milky-way-space/

Wish I knew how to make it a link. You might be able to copy and paste into your browser.

Now I’d like to ask for your help. Some other blogs I’ve checked give much more detailed information about plot and characters. I’ve kept these reviews shorter because I personally have trouble reading too much about a story—I want to just get to the book and get to know the characters for myself. Please let me know if you’d like more detail, about the same amount of information, or less. I’ll also be writing about writing (but not necessarily in a systematic way). And look for a contest in a few weeks.

Whew!

P.S. (In this case, the pre-script.) Coming to the end of the canon! (See Lin Oliver’s List Challenge, posted on Aug. 30th, if you’ve forgotten or have just started to check this blog.) These are the rest of the books I included in the list of the children’s books I’ve more than loved—they have been on-going influences in my life. I apologize if the last few posts have read like a catalogue. Sometimes my response to a catalogue of books is similar to the feelings I used to have in record stores (remember those). How can a person stand to just look at the outside of what they want to experience? But hopefully, if you identify with my choices, you’ll have a sense if you want to try my recommendations.

When I read Charlotte’s Web, I was into ceramics and macrame.

Charlotte’s Web, written by E.B. White and published in 1952. This story of maternal love across species and self-sacrifice has a number of memorable characters: Wilbur, who is charming, loves life, and is a bit of a cry-baby; Charlotte, who accepts the inevitable cycle of life and death but helps Wilbur live to his potential; Templeton, the greedy rat; Fern, the little girl who observes and understands.

Part of the draw was my grandad raised pigs on his farm and my adult aunt kept an orphan piglet in a big box in the kitchen, fed it with a rubber nipple on a 7-Up bottle, and the piglet followed us around like a puppy. But my grandad didn’t want my aunt to forget this was a farm pig. Would Wilbur and Fritz (the orphan piglet) share the same fates? Thankfully, Wilbur was saved by Charlotte’s ingenuity, and children can breath a sigh of relief. Ultimately, the book is a reminder to honor the being and sacrifice of any and all lives.

Think of the fabric strip as time.

A Wrinkle in Time,written by Madeline L’Engle and published in 1962. A book in the genre that shows how a writer can combine spirituality, science, and fantasy and why she would want to. I forgive her for starting the book with, “It was a dark and stormy night.” She did, after all, have a reason.

When time is “wrinkled,” different points of time can share the same space.

I’m grateful for the image created by the title. It has helped me understand some physics concepts, like time travel, and even how something like centering prayer can render some of old life wounds superfluous.

 

 

 

 

A Wizard of Earthsea, written by Ursula Le Guin and published in 1968, is another wonderful fantasy. The protagonist, Ged, is wounded by his own creation. Ged must face his hubris (a great word) and reunite with his shadow self before he can save anybody else. This book is one of those whose meaning plants a seed that grows as the reader matures. It’s a book I think anyone older than thirteen should read.

This is a raku spirit bear made by Jeremy Diller. You can find many examples of his work on line.

The Bears’ House, written by Marilyn Sachs and published in 1971. When the father leaves the family and the mother sinks into mental illness, siblings try to hold the family together without revealing their dire situation to outsiders. Fourth grader, Fran, tries her best to care for her sister, whom she dearly loves. But she does not know how to care for an infant.

Fran also feels hopeless about ever getting her heart’s desire, a bear house the teacher will give to the student who makes the most progress over the school year. To Fran, it is the house that holds her imaginary happy, whole family. This is a heartbreaking story of children trying to fill adult roles when the grown-ups are not reliable or sensitive to the real difficulties children can face. The book still haunts me and reminds me that children’s books do not need to be sugar-coated (although, I believe they do need hope).

The Mermaid’s Three Wisdoms, written by Jane Yolen and published in 1978. Jane Yolen has long been my writing idol, and this is my most treasured book. Her fantasies are richly layered with the logical consequences within whatever world she creates. While there may be magic or myth, problems must still be solved with real effort and often painful growth.

A small fraction of Jane Yolen’s 318 titles.

In The Mermaid’s Three Wisdoms, an angry deaf girl, Jess, helps rescue a mermaid who has been exiled from the merfolk. Since both Jess and the mermaid use their hands to sign, they are each other’s best hope for communication. But that doesn’t make them friends. They both have growing to do before they can truly understand the wisdoms.

Well-worn copy of The Mermaid’s Three Wisdoms, missing it’s beautifully illustrated jacket.

As a substitute teacher, I took this book to a fourth grade class, where a deaf student and her best friend read this book together. I heard later how much the story had meant to them—it is so heartful.

The book can be hard to find. I used to make it a test for a library to see if they had it. I don’t think I ever found it on the shelves or in the card catalogue (see record stores). Check your local library and let me know if they’ve got it.

On my shelves, other books wait for their turn to be shared. I feel guilty ignoring such titles as A Bridge to Terabithia (Katherine Paterson) and others that contributed to how I aspire to live this life.

I must mention two authors of adult books. Both Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove and Terms of Endearment) and Alexander McCall Smith (The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency series) clearly love all their characters even when those characters are behaving badly. I hope my heart learns to stretch as far.

 

Where Waldo Isn’t

Something has been missing from this blog? Have you spotted it?

It’s absence has flummoxed and embarrassed me. How could a blog about children’s books leave out . . . how could a list of influential books from childhood omit  . . . picture books?

I don’t remember reading a picture book until I read some to my much-younger youngest sister (reluctantly read, because I never liked Babar or Curious George). When the rest of us (the other sibs) were little, we had a multi-volume anthology of stories illustrated with small line drawings, but nothing that would qualify as a picture book.

An after-college job in a book store exposed me to the then-blossoming world of children’s literature. The time when authors did not want to be identified as a “children’s writer” was fading. People started to realize that books for children were not just little stories a writer whipped out in an hour or, at most, a weekend. While working in the basement (the paperback section) surrounded by enough books to satisfy a reading glutton, I found that children’s literature ranged from the best to the worst of the printed word.

That year marked the beginning of building a collection of children’s books and of returning to my early dream of writing.

Here are a few of my long-time favorite picture books:

Leo the Late Bloomer, written by by Robert Kraus, illustrated by Jose Aruego, and published in 1971. Perhaps the perfect picture book. The sentences are short and direct. “Leo couldn’t do anything right.” The pictures add details and much of the humor.

A teacher I know said she never met a child who didn’t relate to Leo no matter how competent that child was perceived to be. We all, children and adults, are aware of our weaknesses and find hope in the line, “In his own good time, Leo bloomed.”

After all, how many picture books have also been published in an abridged bathtub version? That has to demonstrate the universality and the appeal of this book.

Miss Rumphius, written by Barbara Cooney and published in 1982. This is a picture book that gives me words to live by. As a child, Alice Rumphius tells her grandfather her dreams. Grandfather tells her she must also do a third thing. She fulfills her dreams, and, in her old age, remembers her grandfather’s words. She finds a way to make the world more beautiful. Barbara Cooney has certainly done that with this book.

The Treasure, written and illustrated by Uri Shulevitz and published in 1978. This lovely and elegant retelling of a folktale was a Caldecott Honor Book. The lesson conveyed in the simple tale is an important reminder to us all young and old. It has also helped me as a parent to remember my children may have to go a great distance before finding what’s valuable at home. As the story coordinator of an art program, I used both The Treasure and Miss Rumphius many summers with many different themes.

The High Rise Glorious Skiddle Skat Roarious Sky Pie Angel Food Cake, written by Nancy Willard, illustrated by Richard Jesse Watson, and published in 1990. This book hooked me with the title and the cover illustration. It’s a loving, funny, gorgeous book to read with another person. The people and the angels are so . . . human. Because its entertaining bird walks (side stories) make this book rather lengthy for a picture book, you might have to shorten the story for younger listeners. You’ll have to get to the end to discover the secret ingredient that makes this cake, and story, so delicious.

Next time, I’ll finish the canon that Lin Oliver suggested. In the meantime, I’d love to hear more about your books.

P.S. I just found out I’m in big trouble at home because I didn’t include any Paul Goble books. All I can say is, Britt, make your own list of formative books, and we’ll get to The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses down the line.

Then and, Sometimes, Now

As promised (or threatened, depending on your point of view), here is the list of books that I read as a child and which have continued to influence me:

The Bible, written and translated by many. In the course of attending a small parochial school for eight years, I read the Bible daily. It is the basis of my spiritual life and guide to respect for the sacred books of others.

Some of the Bible stories that stuck were the ones that were sticky for me to understand as a child. Jacob’s Ladder is an example. I always felt confused when we cycled back to this story. I had no trouble believing but could never understand why we heard it so often. The repetition started to make me mad. The angels never seemed to do anything that made sense. They just went up and down apparently never even getting off the ladder.

I cannot tell you how relieved I felt when I met Jungians bearing tools to extract meanings.  My reaction to Jacob and his angels taught me that if I can’t find (or make up) a why, it’s usually not a story that will engage me. But it’s wonderful when some stories are so well-known that the meanings continue to grow and mature.

Anne of Green Gables, written by L.M. Montgomery and published in 1908. I loved, loved, loved  the books about Anne Shirley. She had red hair and was an orphan. We were alike! Except for the part about me being an orphan. But, as the only redhead in a family of seven, I had questions about whether I belonged in my family or not.

I admired Anne’s spunkiness and imagination. But the deep down reason I loved Anne was that she gave me the words for my soul’s desire—a “bosom friend.” She helped define my deepest longing and the knowledge that others were also on that quest. L.M. Montgomery’s words still delight, still evoke a beautiful environment and multi-dimensional characters, and still move hearts.

The Dr. Doolittle books, written by Hugh Lofting and published between 1920 and 1952. What child doesn’t choose to believe there is a way people can talk to animals? As long as Dr. Doolittle could do it, there was hope for at least some of us. And if we couldn’t understand the animals, then at least he could tell us what those animals were thinking. The Dr. Doolittle books have indirectly influenced some of the choices for characters that inhabit my stories. I do have to add that when I picked a Dr. Dolittle book up recently, the writing style no longer engaged me as it had in the past.

The Good Earth, written by Pearl S. Buck and published in 1931. It’s an adult novel that I think I read sometime in the “big room”–the classroom for the sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students in my three room elementary school. I barely remember the  protagonist, Wang Lung, but his wife O-Lan made a strong impression with her insistence on the importance of the land. The book is the main reason I live on a large lot that was once part of a chicken ranch.* I believe it’s important to have soil to grow food. O-Lan also taught me that life may not be fair, but a woman can be strong in the face of inequality and pain.

After I wrote my memories of The Good Earth, I found an old paperback copy at my mom’s house and decided to reread it. (The book was missing the first sixty-six pages and had a cover price of 35 cents.) Even minus the first pages, it’s still a great read. Pearl Buck creates such wonderful word scenes. Both Wang Lung and O-Lan are emotionally moving, although neither was quite the person I remembered. I thought often of my farming relatives and cried at O-Lan’s death.

*The plants pictured in this blog are in our yard and were planted because of the power of The Good Earth.

Which of the stories you read as a child gave you guideposts in life?